Books, Bikes, and Food

Reviews, Recipes, Rides… and some other things, too.


Manuel Vázquez Montalban: Galíndez (1990)

This book had been on my reading list forever, but for some reason it was impossible to get my hands on it. Until, finally, my parents in law managed to unearth a second hand copy. You can imagine I was rather expectant.

I must say, I was a little disappointed. Galíndez is based on a real event, the murder of Basque politician Jesús de Galíndez by the Dominican Republic’s dictator Trujillo in the 1950s. He’d written a doctoral thesis on the Trujillo regime that didn’t go down to well with “El Benefactor”. Galíndez lived in New York at the time as the Basque exile government’s representative at the United Nations, where he was kidnapped off the street and shipped to the Dominican Republic where he was tortured and eventually killed. It’s a rather complex story that somewhat spiralled out of the control of the Trujillo regime and entailed the killing of several other people. You can read the rest on Wikipedia here.

That’s just the background though, although Vázquez Montalbán goes into quite a lot of detail on the torture scenes. It’s like you’re living in Galíndez’s head, the narrator addressing Galíndez as “you”. I found it strange and a little over the top as a stylistic device. That just as a side note, because the real protagonist is Muriel Colbert, another PhD student who has somehow become obsessed with the Galíndez case and is trying to find out what really happened. It’s a strange PhD project, I have to say. Muriel spends a lot of time tracing Galíndez and unearthing all sorts of information on the man, and she becomes very emotionally involved in the case, but in a strangely detached way. I can’t quite put my finger on what I find so weird about her relationship with her subject of study. It’s like she falls in love with him post-mortem, but at the same time she remains oddly analytical about it. Needless to say, there are some people who don’t want her to find out too much, and she is quick to get the US secret service on her heels. I didn’t find this very believable. Muriel seems a bit too ditzy to be a danger to anyone, to be honest.

Then there are a lot of side characters that each get their own story thread but are never fully developed. There’s a fat agent who gets put on the case and reactivates Voltaire, an old agent who’s living in Miami with lots of cats and who can’t resist doing a job for the agency every now and then. The way the different narratives are strung together is most confusing and the characters just didn’t come to life for me.

Even though this was supposed to be a thriller, for me there was never any suspense. There was no feeling of Muriel being “hunted” by the agents. Everything just sort of happened somehow. I really wanted to like this book. As it was, it took me ages to read and the best thing I can say about it was that it didn’t completely turn me off and I finished it eventually.



Enrique Vila-Matas: Bartleby y compañía (2000)

I read Bartleby y compañía for Richard and Stu‘s Spanish Lit Month. As always, so many smart things have been said already that I almost want to become a Bartleby myself and just shut up about the book. You can find Richard’s round-up of posts on Bartleby y compañía here. I’d particularly like to distinguish Obooki’s series of four posts, they express a lot of what I felt but do it so much more eloquently than I could.

Bartleby y compañía is fiction, but it’s not a novel. It consists of a series of footnotes to a non-existant text. The footnotes deal with writers who, for some reason, have given up writing, thus becoming artistas del No (artists of the No). According to the collector of these footnotes, a miserly civil servant who eventually gets fired for skiving off work to search for more “Bartlebys”, these writers suffer from “Bartleby syndrome”. This “illness” is named after Bartleby, the protagonist of Melville’s novel of the same name, a copyist who gives up all his tasks slowly but surely.  I may have to confess to a major omittance at this point – I’ve not actually read Bartleby (Thankfully, Obooki has).

As a book about authors and their unwritten texts (is it safe to call this meta-fiction?), I found the format of “footnotes” to an unwritten text quite fitting. Perhaps this is why Vila-Matas didn’t publish it as a series of separate essays, as Richard suggested he might have done.

Apart from not having read the original Bartleby, there are also a lot of authors mentioned in Bartleby y compañía that I haven’t read don’t even know. The book is one huge exercise in intertextuality and, as such, almost made my head explode. Thankfully, I realised at some point that some of the authors are – or may be – made up (Obooki, again, has compiled a useful list of these potentially fictional Bartlebys, although they’re hard to track down since their principal trait is the fact that they did not leave a trail of works behind). This made me feel slightly less badly read.

At this rate, I thought several times throughout, I’m next in line for applying for the job of Clément Cadou, precisely one of these maybe-or-maybe-not made-up artists of the no. Wanting to be a writer, he once met Witold Gombrowicz, an event which left him so stupefied that he felt like a piece of dining-room furniture. Cadou ended up not writing anything because he didn’t feel up to it after the strong impression Gombrowicz made on him. Bartleby y compañía is my Gombrowicz: it made me feel so poorly read that I don’t really feel up to writing much about it.

However, I do think that the fact that some of the authors are (probably) fictional is probably one of Vila Mata’s tools of irony. I suspect the guy knew full well that a lot of his writing in Bartleby y compañía would go straight over readers’ heads because they haven’t read or don’t even know the Bartlebys he’s talking about. So he included some made-up ones for good measure. He’s probably chuckling to himself somewhere about his little prank.

I enjoyed its subtle and sometimes less subtly irony – indeed, the whole book is probably ironic, since Vila-Matas himself is quite the prolific writer. But luckily, Bartleby y compañía is relatively short, as I don’t think I would’ve gotten through it otherwise. Presenting one author who has given up writing after the other gets a little old after a while, and sometimes I found it hard to focus on so much intertextuality. The most positive thing I can say about the book, I guess, is that it made me want to read (more of) some of these authors’ works.

English title: Bartleby & Co. 
German title:
 Bartleby und Co.


Bernardo Atxaga: El hombre solo (1993)

El hombre solo produced a variety of conflicting thoughts as I read it and thought about it afterwards, and they somehow morphed into this huge post. Bear with me, I’d really love to hear what you think about some of these issues.

But first, a little context: protagonist Carlos is a former ETA activist now living close to Barcelona, where he runs a hotel with a group of friends, all of which had formerly been active in “the organisation”. The football world cup is being held in Spain, and their hotel has become the abode of choice for the Polish football team. On the face of it, things have calmed down, but underneath the magma of their previous lives is still bubbling, both in terms of their previous activism and the emotional variable geometry within the group.

I won’t say much about the plot itself, because it gets quite fast-paced towards the end and to spoil it wouldn’t be fair at all. The gist of it is: Carlos has decided to offer shelter to two wanted ETA members  at the hotel, which is teeming with police (not only) because the football team needs protection. As the race gets closer, he is forced to dig out his former activist knowledge and take some decisions that don’t just affect him, but the whole group, which is really much more like a close-knit family than a group of “friends”.

Continue reading


Javier Marías: Corazón tan blanco (1991)

“My hands are of your colour;
but I shame to wear a heart so white”
– Shakespeare: Macbeth

This is the quote that gives Corazón tan blanco its title, and references to Shakespeare and, in particular, to Macbeth,  abound in throughout the novel.

Corazón tan blanco tells the story of Juan Ranz, an interpreter who has just married Luisa, another interpreter. Since the beginning of their marriage, he has been possessed by a feeling of impending doom, he can’t quite put his finger on it, but it’s deeply connected to a question his father asks him on his wedding day:

“And what now?”

And even though he didn’t want to learn this fact, he realises that his father’s first wife – Juan’s aunt, because his father later married her sister – killed herself shortly after their honeymoon. And, digging even deeper, he finds out that there was a third woman, his father’s actual first wife, a Cuban to whom he was married during a brief stint of living there.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Mini-Reviews 2011 – because Life is Short

As I was looking at the list of books in the “read but not reviewed yet” category of my reading list, the thought of having to go back to them all seemed somewhat daunting (ok, there are only three really – it seems I’m easily overwhelmed…). So when I found out via Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness about Lu of Regular Rumination‘s idea of doing a quick catch-up of mini-reviews on the books read during the year that somehow never got reviewed, I loved the idea. I’m in awe of the amount of books other people get around to, but here’s my almost embarrassingly short stab at the mini-reviews anyway.

Josefina Aldecoa: Historia de una maestra – The first of a trilogy, Historia… tells the story of a young female teacher in 1920s/30s rural Spain. I was overwhelmed with how modern some of the protagonists’ ideas  were (even for today’s standards), and how starkly they contrasted with the backwardness of the surroundings. It was engaging and very pleasant to read, and I definitely want to read the other two books at some point. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have been translated, maybe because the story is so quintessentially Spanish.
Evaluation: 8/10

Mario Vargas Llosa: Travesuras de la niña mala – “Meh” is probably the best word to describe the feeling I came away with from this novel. The main character is so head-over-heels in love with the “bad girl” that he becomes a complete idiot, and the more the story wore on, the more I wanted to slap him. The story struck me as predictable: he meets her again, can’t resist, she screws him over and disappears, he gets depressed… until they meet again – and so on ad infinitum. It could’ve been worse, but it could also have been a lot better. (English title: The Bad Girl, German title: Das böse Mädchen)
Evaluation: 6/10

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: Crónica del rey pasmado – This is the book where it makes me the saddest that I never got around to writing up a ‘proper’ review. Because this is a little gem (Alex of The Sleepless Reader also thinks so) that ought to be much better known! Full of clever irony and sarcasm – even laugh-out-loud funny – it tells the story of how the King tries to put into practice a  really crazy idea that’s come into his head: he wants to see his wife, the Queen, naked. Not an easy feat in a palace where everyone has their own hidden agenda and politicking is rife. (English title: The King Amaz’d)
Evaluation: 9/10

Leave a comment

Kirmen Uribe: Bilbao-New York-Bilbao (2009)

After struggling for weeks – or actually, make that months – through Bolaño’s excellent but challenging Los detectives salvajes, I really needed something short, sweet, and decidedly less in-your-face high-brow. So I settled for a small novel I had (fittingly) bought in Bilbao back in April: New York-Bilbao-New York by Basque* writer Kirmen Uribe. Prepare, this review somehow got long and I got sucked into fundamentals.

It was perfect. It’s small (204 pages) and a non-trivial but entertaining read. The novel is woven around a flight from Bilbao to New York and based on Uribe’s own family history. In fact, it’s so close to his own life that I really can’t tell how much of it is actually fiction. Little stories Uribe collected from the inhabitants of his native fishing village Ondarroa, from other writers and poets, and from all kinds of other sources are woven together. Using (fictional?) e-mails, letters, transcripts of recordings and diaries, he pieces together a vivid puzzle of three generations and a way of life, intimately connected with the sea and the traditions of the Basque Country, that is slowly being lost.

For his innovative writing in New York-Bilbao-New York, Uribe won the Premio Nacional de Narrativa (Spanish national literature prize) in 2009. And while at first sight the fact that there isn’t really a plot and this is not really a ‘novel’ in the traditional sense might seem tedious, it was actually a very pleasant and relaxing read.

What I kept wondering, though, was the extent to which New York-Bilbao-New York could speak to anyone who has no idea about the Basque Country. Uribe, like many of his fellow countrymen, is very proud of his people’s culture and traditions, and this shines through in many aspects of the novel. So for anybody not familiar with this cultural backdrop, reading the book might require a bit of Googling and Wikipedia research on the Basque language (Euskera), the Basque Country, and its (recent) history (there, I’ve made it easy for you).**  Towards the end of the book, Uribe wonders why  Basque literature hasn’t made it into the canon of world literature. It’s a good question, and many reasons can be cited for it (Basque is a language with a very rich oral, but little written tradition, it was forbidden under the Franco dictatorship, and so on), but I think one of the reasons – at least for recent Basque literature – is that it is quite self-involved. Two books very successful in the region – Bilbao-New York-Bilbao and Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga – are both excellent, but readers with no connection whatsoever to the Basque region might not feel easily at home in either novel. With Bilbao-New York-Bilbao, Uribe wants to reach out. I think he’s onto something and has made a start. After all, he won a national-level prize, so at least the jury ‘got’ Bilbao-New York-Bilbao.

But it’s a little bit like with Latin American literature. In El Insomnio de Bolívar, Jorge Volpi comments that for Latin American authors, it was difficult to move beyond writing ‘Latin American’ novels (and someone who wrote about other places was looked at strangely). Maybe it’s a bit the same with Basque literature, obviously for different reasons and on a smaller scale. Does it have to move beyond the Basque Country and Basque culture before really ‘making it’ outside? Or would that mean that it’d lose its distinctive flavour and become amalgamated into Spanish or wider European literature?

So far, Bilbao-New York-Bilbao hasn’t been translated into English or other languages for an audience outside the Iberian peninsula (and Latin America), but it’s available in Basque, Spanish, Catalan, Galician and Portuguese. I hope it gets translated though, because I really wonder whether it would have a shot at becoming a success.

OK, so after this rant, here comes the

Evaluation: 8/10.

*The original, published in 2008, is in Basque, and the translation to the Spanish is by Ana Arregi.
**I’m linking the Wikipedia entries here, but they have to be taken with a grain of salt. The Basque issue is a controversial one and this shines through in the articles. Also, the fact that I link them does not necessarily mean I agree with their respective slants.