Not To Read by Alejandro Zambra (translated by Megan McDowell)

I have been a bit a quiet on here recently when it comes to posting things on here. I only write about what I like and anything I dislike I don’t want to give the time of day on something like this. I have read a couple of books recently that I could not get through so I just gave upon them. My heart goes out to the many students and literary critics who are out there and have no choice but to write about and review books that they would otherwise just stop reading. Fortunately with my blog I do what I want.

Despite not being able to go through a couple of books I struggled with, I have been reading a number of essays and articles of the Chilean writer and critic Alejandro Zambra translated and edited by Megan McDowell who herself writes a forward on how she came across Zambra. This collection of essays is essentially Zambra’s meditations on books, writers, reading and translating. As you would expect it is written from a South American perspective, Zambra writes about other South American writers from my favourite in Clarice Lispector to Roberto Bolano and there are also other names I recognised such as Borges. Zambra also introduces us to a number of new writers I have never come across before. One of them being Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar a book which I would like to look at eventually.

Zambra writes about how the way we consume books is changing with respect to digital media and libraries. One article I found interesting was Erasing the Reader. In this one Zambra writes about being annoyed by someone who put notes in a second hand book that he has been reading and disagrees with the notes and thoughts that have been written. Zambra writes of course from a Chilean perspective and from a different culture to our own, I was interested by the fact that there was a time in Chile where whole books used to be photocopied and people would have such editions because it was cheaper than the expensive books. Zambra also writes about having to read and write about books he does not like which is a worry I try to avoid. I also liked one article I could relate to in that Zambra would always carry a book with him wherever he would go. The only issue I have had with some of the books and writers he talk about is that some but not all do seem to be appear hard to find at least in the English language.

One book he sings the praises of I understand can be a little hard to get hold of sadly. My arms are too short and pockets are too deep for that one.

I found Zambra’s writings to be fascinating in that we read from another perspective that is not necessarily Anglo-American. I fear sometimes that we make the mistake at least in an almost entirely monolingual English world of not being wholly aware of other thoughts and ideas until somebody eventually translates them and I am glad that somebody does so and makes us aware of them (this partly why I have been trying to learn other languages myself even if only at a basic level). To know how people around the world are think and write is incredibly important and Zambra does this beautifully.

[Fitzcarraldo Editions 2018, Kindle edition]

The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector (translated by Idra Novey)

This is one of Clarice’s more famous works and a lot has been written about this book. For those of you who don’t know much about it, this post is for you. I could go on about all sorts of details about this book but I will try and be brief.

The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector.

My friends are aware of my Clarice fascination and to the ones that I have introduced her works to, they find this one to be somewhat puzzling, they find it for want of a better word, odd. What we do see is Clarice at her best when it comes to style, we know that this book ‘best corresponded to her demands as a writer’ (Clarice by Nadia Gotlib).

The Passion is not like many other books you will read and this is is the first Clarice book I’ve read (other than what is seen in her short stories at the least) that is written in the first person narrated by the character GH an artist specialising in sculpture, I was always amused by the fact that our initials are the same. There is another character in this story, an unfortunate cockroach.

I’ve heard people argue (my friends in particular) that GH comes across as a bit self indulgent and full of her self. GH is more complicated than that. When we first meet GH she has a comfortable life as an artist and is clearing out her former maid’s tidy room, she comes to the realisation that this maid did not like her, she finds that the maid (who she has little recollection of) had daubed pictures of a man, a woman and a dog on one of the walls. This realisation upsets GH which starts a shift in her mind, she has an anger attack, she sees the cockroach and attacks it, what remains affects the mind of GH and this is when GH tells us about how she is thinking and feeling. She questions her life, her relationship with God, her own existence in the world. We also read about the unfortunate cockroach and how GH’s existential experience affects it.

Within her meditations for example GH says,

‘Ah, at least I had already entered the Roach’s nature to the point that I no longer wanted to do anything for it. I was freeing myself from my morality and that was a catastrophe without crash and without tragedy.’

GH sees some of her former maid in the cockroach. I was reminded a little bit of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor as the monstrous vermin is the cockroach, Greta is GH who after confronting the creature sees a change in her life. GH’s change comes originally from her fit of rage after associating the room and the cockroach with the maid who didn’t like her. Going on personal experience when you have a depressive fit of rage, how you thought a second before is gone and everything feels different so I could understand GH’s sudden shift in thinking if only to a certain degree.

A more seasoned picture of Clarice from what you see on the back of the English Penguin editions

This is seen as one of Clarice’s better works. It is definitely well contained and felt easier to read than The Chandelier and The Besieged City. I still think Near to the Wild Heart and her short stories is when we see Clarice at her best especially with character interaction. The Passion is a fascinating treatise on the mind of a human being. Although we read about GH’s passion, it is the cockroach that suffers more. From what I have seen in the world it’s those that are repulsed by others that seem to do the most suffering.

Before the story starts Clarice herself says that people with fully formed souls should only read this book. I definitely broke that rule I read it anyway. Read this book if you want something different from everything else you have ever read. Contemplate on what GH thinks. The only down side with a book is that you can’t debate with the characters. I would love to with GH.