Tag Archives: Literature

Asian Literature is Always Forgotten

Asian literature is largely unknown. I must admit my utter ignorance about it as almost every European reader should. We Western people blush unless we have read Shakespeare or Cervantes while we do not care about any well-known Asian writer. The lack of Asian works in Western bookshops and reviews is simply appalling.

As I did regarding Latin American literature, I shook my memory tree in order to gather every piece of Asian literature I ever read. My sparse Far-East’s readings include two works by the Japanese author Yukio Mishima (The Temple of Golden Pavilion and The Music), Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by the also Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu and a few poems by the Chinese poet Li Bai. I also read some Middle East works such as Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the Innana’s Descent to the Underworld and Erra and Ishum, apart from scattered poems by medieval Persian poets. This short list is almost completed by adding some Asian-born writers of Western traditions, including ancient ones such as Herodotus and Heraclitus. There is nothing else save for fragments of the Bible, an almost European version of One Thousand and One Night, a few haikus and tankas and a handful of manga graphic stories. To top it off, I read none of them in their original languages.

Some time ago I read about this girl who aimed to read one book from almost every country in the world. I thought then it was a great idea. I have scarcely read anything from Asia and I miss large areas of this continent as for literature. I used to consider myself a good reader though I do not hold such a smarty claim anymore.

In the future I will try to diversify my readings so that taking more Asian works. I think this is a great way to overcome our Euro-centric thinking.

I will appreciate any fresh Asian suggestion.

Latin American Literature

post23_1Shortly after my coming-of-age I first read Jorge Luis Borges and was immediately beguiled by El Aleph. I’ve been since in love with Latin American literature. It is a fruitful love, since I am aware of the great deal of books and authors I haven’t read yet.

Every now and then I read or re-read a book by Borges. I devour his books cover to cover as soon as I start reading one. But I cannot judge Latin American literature by knowing a sole writer. In my opinion, another extremely talented Latin writer is Julio Cortázar. His short stories compete in quality with Borges’s, though I will always remember him due to the dazzling Rayuela.

I had also the occasion of reading some books by Alejo Carpentier. Sometimes tough, Carpentier deploys the richness of his language in order to crumble the Caribbean idiosyncrasy. I read just two books by him, entitled El siglo de las luces and El reino de este mundo. I can’t wait for reading more. The arguably best Mexican author Juan Rulfo also deserves a try. I didn’t enjoy Pedro Páramo as much as I expected, though I really liked some short stories of El llano en llamas. Gabriel García Márquez is well-known by English speaking readers because of his Cien años de soledad. I beg your pardon; I haven’t read this title yet. However, I can’t help recommending El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, a short though beautiful tale which depicts a hopeless retired soldier who longs for a never-paid salary. Mario Vargas Llosa is also author of stunning stories such as La ciudad y los perros. The Uruguayan Juan Carlos Onetti is also remarkable because of his particular style. O alquimista is a commendable novel by the Brazilian writer Paulo Cohelo. It is probably easier to read than all the others aforementioned, though it is not less worthwhile reading.

Latin American poetry draws to me as least as much as its prose. Borges outstands again with books such as El oro de los tigres or El otro, el mismo. I actually owe him the love for the poetry, which I used to hate. Nowadays I appreciate the poetry written by a great amount of Latin American poets including Rubén Darío, Vicente Huidobro, Alfonsina Storni and César Vallejo among many others. I am into a love-hate relationship with Pablo Neruda. I can read breathlessly some of his poems while chocking at others. Kind of the same happens to me with the also Chilean poets Gabriela Mistral and Nicanor Parra as well as with the Uruguayan Mario Benedetti. I recently discovered the poems by the Mexican José Emilio Pacheco and like them. I read a few  poems by the Ecuatorian Medardo Ángel Silva from time to time (‘Ah, no abras la ventana todavía, / ¡es tan vulgar el sol!… La luz incierta / conviene tanto a mi melancolía…). Surprisingly I don’t like too much the poetry by Xavier Villaurrutia nor Cortázar, though it’s surely due to my personal tastes since I discriminate more poetry than prose. Finally, I read around two years ago the anthology Poesía ante la incertumbre. This book showed me some more interesting young Latin American poets, i.e. Ana Wajszczuk.

Latin American literature has a sterling quality. As a whole, it is possibly the best literature I have ever read. I nevertheless realise that I know it better than other literatures apart from reading it in Spanish, which is the original language of most of its books.

I commend everyone to delve into its treasures. Do you like it? Are there other titles I should read as a must?

Variety / Quantity / Quality

My main motivation why I read is just having fun. Learning, increasing my concentration rates, looking for information I am curious about and so on are usually side-effects. However, they are also good consequences of reading, and all of them could be motivators in and of themselves. They define parts of the personality as well.

Once we realise that having fun is not the only good thing we can gather from literature, we should be aware of the tricky package variety – quantity – quality.

Source: Commons (Public domain)

Source: Commons (Public domain)

Variety

According to PISA files, this is the most important factor while reading. It doesn’t matter whether a person read a lot. Saying it otherwise, if two people read the same quantity of literature but one of them reads always the same genre whereas the other switches among them, the second one will have more possibilities of developing his cognitive abilities. In this equation not only can we include all kind of fictional books, but also essay, divulgation, poetry, theatre, newspapers, e-books, comics and the like. Probably, we could add reading in more than one language.

In my opinion, this is the main idea we should keep in mind while reading. Also, I think that switching among different plots and styles is very interesting and fun! Apart from that, reading too much within an only genre could lead to tediousness and reading crisis, which are the opposite of the first goal: read to have fun.

Quantity

Probably, this is the point of disagreement. What is best between quantity and quality? As usual, there’re no simple answers. I believe that there’s a point when one of them outruns the other. Quality is more important to me, though the more balance the better. Incidentally, a high reading frequency allows a higher variety.

Quality

If your time of reading is sparse, go for it! Quality is, nevertheless, hard to define. Although what is quality is something which is beyond this post’s aim, we could probably agree in taking each literary corpus as a guarantee of quality. They list works which are rewarded due to innovations in many aspects, so we expect to take from a few of them more feedback than from a bunch of non-rewarded ones.

However, every reader is different. Sacrificing quantity for quality doesn’t worth when the person doesn’t enjoy the books as much as others. Also, quality shouldn’t be a complete alternative to variety. Newspapers, comics, magazines or blogs are also important in our development as readers and people. Don’t underrate them.

When the Translator Writes a Different (Great) Book

Two years ago I read Orlando, by Virginia Woolf. I thought I was prepared, because I had read before both To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. I was not. Since the first page there were things which sounded familiar to me. Despite being aware of it, the style was slightly non-Woolf, regardless the first half of Orlando is noticeably easier to read than other Woolf’s books are. That was not the matter. I must clarify that I was reading the book in Spanish. So at some point I stopped reading and sought the translator. There he was, Jorge Luis Borges, an author whose work I knew. I acknowledged that reading would be challenging. I was about to read two different books.

Firstly, I was a bit angry. I had chosen to read a Woolf’s book after all, so why should I endure another writer’s text? While reading I used to think that a particular word was clearly a Borges fetish, although the next one was an evident Woolf’s expression… What a mess! I was more focused on the style than on the story. That was sinful, because I was really enjoying the story.

post13_1

Source: Commons (Public domain)

After a number of pages I started to think which Woolf’s expressions had influenced Borges’ style. That was even worse, because I interrupted my reading so that considering such trivia.

Afterwards, I understood that not only was I reading one book, but two. It was not I was reading two different books, but two insights around the same plot. I understood how a translator may convey his particular view of the book while still making a good work. Finally, I understood that all the translations are skewed. But do you know what? I didn’t mind. At least it doesn’t mind as long as the translation is good. Perhaps, there are translations which are better than the original.

I thereafter enjoyed Orlando to the fullest.

The science of the art

We live in a world which demands a great deal of scientists. A range of well-regarded fields, ranging from environmentalism to physics, are generating high expectations. As a consequence, these sorts of professionals are viewed as genius. Conversely, some of these people of science look down on the artists, since they think not only are their fields more important, but also that they could make art easily. Luckily, this is not the rule, though I’ve observed this situation’s spreading out lately. I must state to these people that art and science aren’t so far from each other. Indeed, there’s an art of the science, and a science of the art.

Probably, the easiest topic to discuss is the architecture. Almost nobody argues it is part art and part science, since both are needed to design and build any modern building. Because of that I will write about poetry. It has got lots of traditions depending on cultures and centuries, though I think what I’m going to defend is easy to grasp.

DNA, from Commons (public domain)

DNA, from Commons (public domain)

Everybody associates poetry with feelings. Those who know it better could add other things, such as thoughts and social criticism. All of that is ok, but poetry has got a technique as a background. Rhymes are well-known, but they are a tiny part of the huge amount of resources the poetry manages, namely metrics, accentual rhythm, metaphors and so on. Beyond the classic ones there is a huge amount of them, as well as in ancient poetry, though this brief writing doesn’t intend to show all of them. Instead, I would like to compare a bit the way science and poetry work. I realize this comparison won’t be thorough. Actually, it will be fairly innocent. This short post is far from being a whole book after all!

Sciences have modernly started out from the scientific method, which is based on observation, making questions and testing the hypothesis, to put it very simply. The key part is the second. The scientific needs to formulate an idea called hypothesis which must be tested. Science is not science at all if nobody knows where to go. Hopefully, there will be great discoveries different from the desired goal, but there must be an initial goal, which is any theory or target. The understanding needed to think through known concepts in order to create or discover a new one is a pace forward. In other words, new knowledge appears from old knowledge, but it is original in and of itself. Regarding that, science is similar to arts. The scientist gambles, and the guesswork doesn’t turn into a fact until the hypothesis is proved. Objectiveness is not all over science, though it is a part of the goal.

A poem cares about how things are said. I think this is a good definition. Note that ‘poem’ is not a synonym of ‘poetry’…, but let’s move on. The definition given implies a wide amount of things which are related with languages. This means that sounds ranges of a tongue, accentuation of words, syntax and every single variation on how things are said, as well as feelings and sensations conveyed, can be studied. According to the objective and even physic rules a poet can understand from such a study, the poem can follow or break them. That is, starting with a deep observation of the language and the culture, a poet can imagine not a theory but something he or she wants to achieve. The process of making the poem includes therefore many experiments which stem from his/her observations, many of them failed, until reaching something which fits the original target and whose correct interpretation and reading by the reader is possible due to linguistic and cultural facts.

I’m aware of the fact that sciences could follow slightly different methods, like that proposed by Jared Diamond for a science of history, and poetry could be made on the basis of other less technical and objective methods. The point is that there is a method in poetry as well as an intention, and resources which are based on facts. Hopefully, arts and sciences will learn a lot from each other. Both are equally needed, and they’re not as different as many people think.

Lists of best books ever

Every time I come across a list of this kind I read it and my opinion is always the same: Yes, BUT… Clearly a list is just a list, and it cannot be perfect. Incidentally, it can depict a good portrait of the literature in general, and most of them underrate some literature instead of defend it. Sometimes, literature for them is just a part of it. I’ve gathered the main reasons why I never rely on this kind of lists:

  1. Only Western literature: They hardly ever include an Asian book, but it is almost a miracle to list a traditional Arabic or African book, not to speak about Ancient Scandinavian or Ancient Middle East works. Probably, the main absence is Journey to the West, which is largely considered as the great masterpiece of the Chinese literature.
  2. Novels instead of literature: The list makers forget quite often that the word “literature” spans across many different works. How many lists include scientific works, for instance? If we decide to focus on fiction, at the very least we’d have to consider theater works and poetry, wouldn’t we?
  3. English literature on the top: If we examine carefully ten lists, we’ll see that nine each ten have got over 80% books written in English originally. Seriously, is English literature so important? Clearly not so good, although it is indeed important. Alright, let’s focus just on Western literature. Come on, seriously, what about Latin American Literature, both Spanish and Portuguese. What about French literature. What about German literature. What about Spanish literature. What about Polish literature. For some reason Russian and Italian authors are well considered in English lists, rule of thumb, so I’ll stop here.
  4. There’re only new works: It’s usual to find two or three medieval works in every best literature lists, but that’s clearly insufficient. Sometimes they even list an ancient work as Gilgamesh. But it seems that books are more important if they’re new. Ok, I agree that since there’re more written pieces of work nowadays, odds say there will be more new good books, but lists are foolishly new.
  5. Many different qualities: I can even accept a list with 80/100 English books if it’s got good titles. What is different is to boost new popular bestsellers atop remarkable well-known historic marvels.

And that’s it. Yes, I enjoy reading…