Sunday, January 31, 2010

Combi – Argentine novel by Angela Pradelli

The previous two Argentine novels I had read this month were about middle class and rich people. But Combi is about the poor and marginalised, who travel by Combi ( minibus) from their residences in the outskirts of Buenos Aires city for more than one hour for their work in the city. This novel is about the fifteen passengers who travel in one of the Combis regularly to the city.

The novel starts with the driver Esteban whose father was also a Combi driver. His father runs away with the wife and money of the owner of the minibus company, uses the money to buy a hotel in a southern town, loses the money with poor management and dies in misery. Esteban´s happiest memories were travelling with his father, talking to him and singing together when they went to a beach town when he was a kid. Esteban is content with his job and his modest life with limited ambitions. His wife asks him to buy diapers for the baby but he forgets it and remembers only the ample breasts pushing against the tight blouse of the receptionist in the minibus company office.
- Carolina, the receptionist in the minibus company had earlier worked in an icecream shop and had a fling with a college student during his summer vacation. She struggles to tolerate her boss who smokes all the time and the irate passengers who take it out on her when the minibus is delayed or when they could not get a seat.
-America Levano, the Peruvian woman, comes to find livelihood in Buenos Aires after her husband ran away with another woman leaving her with his daughter. She lives with other Peruvians and Bolivians in a ghetto which is raided periodically by the Argentine police. She finds work as a domestic help and later an Argentine man to live with. Discovering one day that the Argentine was abusing her daughter, She kills him with a kitchen knife. After her jail term ends she resumes her work and travel by the Combi.
-Olga makes a career out of giving bath to sick and handicapped people. Her job is disgusting when she has to touch and clean the bodies of people with infections and skin diseases. But she has got used to it and the money she earns is good compensation. Her job exposes her to all kinds of people including one who wants her to wash a mannequin.
-Megumi, a woman of Japanese descent enjoys her volunteer job as a reader to sick and handicapped people. Once she is asked to read to a person in coma on the belief that the person in coma might be hearing what is read. By a miracle, the person in coma wakes up one day and remembers the stories read out to him by Megumi. When she reads out in an old peoples´home, the history professor there notices her small feet which make him recall the Chinese tradition of forcefully making women´s feet small and the erotic connotations of small feet in China.
-Bruno is an anthropologist who works as a forensic expert to identify the persons who were tortured, killed and buried by the military dictatorship. He along with other experts analyse the bones and other remains from cemetries and make out who they were and how they died. His technical job gets complicated when he works with the sad and desperate families of those who lost their fathers, brothers and sons to military repression.
- Josef Wrobleswki, of Polish origin, has a habit of telling everyone the story of his family from Poland. But while narrating the sadder parts of the story he starts speaking in Polish and sobbing uncontrollably.
-Ivo mayer is a porno film director after hhaving failed in his ventures to make political films to convey his leftist message. He gets exiled for his political beliefs and on return from exile, he is unable to relaunch his political film project and is stuck in porno films.
The remaining occupants of the fifteen seats in the Combi include a pock marked young woman struggling with the disfiguring of her face by constant eruptions and acnes, a woman who writes astrological columns in a weekly, a man who does magic and tricks and Nacho the orphan kid who is obsessed with cemetries where he spends most of his time. The precariousness of the lives of these characters and the life stories of others with whom they interact in their daily lives are poignant and moving.

On this particular day of the journey, everyone is upset and anxious because the Combi is delayed because of a roadblock by piqueteros ( picketers) on the way. The reason for blocking the road on this day is to commemorate the third anniversary of the death of two of their comrades who were killed in one of the protest marches. The minibus gets stuck in the middle of the protest demonstration. One of the passengers remark,¨we are fucked ( jodido- in spanish) by the dead besides the living Argentines¨. Especially since 2001 (December 2001 saw the worst economic and political crisis in Argentina) the piqueteros have become one of the protagonists of the Argentine society. Day in and day out there are many protest marches in the city of Buenos Aires and traffic is disrupted along with the work and lives of people. Sometimes the piqueteros block the main highways connecting the cities causing traffic jam for miles together. The reasons for such protests could be local or national causes, serious or trivial. But they have become a force to reckon with and part of everyday life in Argentina to the chagrin of middle class and working people. Roadblocks and protests have become instituitionalised. There are many professional piqueteros who have become experts in organisation and media management. They are used by political parties too.

This is the third book I have read in the original Spanish. The author Angela Pradelli has given a vivid account of the lives of poor people who work as domestic help and bus drivers. She has captured their emotions and struggles and made a powerful impact on the readers. The novel is based on her personal experience of travel in Combis and her interaction with all kinds of fellow passengers. Angela works as a teacher

Combi is not a fiction. It is a reality of Argentina. It exists along with the elegant theaters, cafes, bars and restaurants of Buenos Aires and the Country Clubs which have high walls to block the unpleasant reality of slums around them. But the people who live in high-rise apartments and high-walled country clubs cannot avoid the piqueteros and the reality of Argentina....

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Las Viudas de los jueves- Argentine novel by Claudia Piñeiro

The novel Las Viudas de los jueves ( the Thursday widows ) takes the readers into the country clubs of Argentina and gives an insight into the lives of the rich Argentines who live in these exclusive places. Country clubs in Argentina ( called as Countries ) are gated residential communities with 100 to 1000 houses. There are around 200 Countries around Buenos Aires city. The main newspapers have weekly supplements on the countries with pictures of idyllic lives. These countries have large houses with spacious gardens, sports facilities such as polofields, golf courses, tennis courts and swimming pools. Most importantly the countries provide security with its own private security guards and systems. They have high walls around so that the poor people outside cannot see the affluence inside. Outsiders cannot enter the countries unless they are invited by a resident. The families and children can walk around and do cycling and skating and there is no need to lock the houses. Many of the Countries have golf courses which add to the greenery and scenery. While some people use their country houses for weekends, there are many who live there permanently and commute to work in the city. During weekends, everyone is out in the gardens, golf courses, tennis courts and pools. Even the kitchen goes outdoor for Asado ( barbecue ). Friends and families get together for barbecue lunch and wine.

I have played golf in dozens of these country clubs and been to the barbecue parties of friends living there. I have been impressed with the style of living, elegance of the houses and aesthetic taste with which the houses are furnished. The country club residences look like entries of architects and interior designers for a competition.

The principal characters in the novel are four couples in the country club called as Los Altos de Cascada. The four wives call themselves as Thursday Widows because their husbands get together on Thursday nights to play cards and have fun among themselves. The wives are excluded from this and they go out for movies or find other ways to occupy themselves. On one fatal Thursday, three of the husbands commit suicide by eloctrocutting in the swimming pool. The fourth guy does not agree to this collective suicide and escapes. The reason for the suicide is the fall in their income and loss of jobs and business which make it impossible for them to sustain the lifestyle they had maintained in the country club.

The novel portrays vividly the aspirations, ostentations, anxieties and insecurities within the high society of the countries. A house in a country is a statement by the social climbers. It is to get away from the city crowd and become part of an exclusive group. But after having moved into the country, they are under intense and constant pressure to keep up with the neighbours and keep up appearances. Clothes, cars, gardens and lives are compared all the time. The scrutiny is more intense than among those living in apartments. In the countries everything is open. There are no fences between houses and there is no place to hide. It is like living in glasshouses. Two teenagers in the novel spend the nights spying on the houses of other residents through binoculars watching from trees and bushes. They happen to see the suicide event and film it. Another kid makes sketches of what he sees through the windows. His sketch and diary description of the sexual activities of his neighbour becomes an issue in the school, who advise the parents to take the kid to a psychologist.

In the Argentine society, show is more important than content. This can be seen from the elaborate artistic façade of the buildings and the elegant dressing by old people who come to the neighbourhood cafes. In Brazil dress does not matter. Choli ke peeche kya hai .. is all that the Brasilians are interested.

The son of one of the principal characters in the novel does not know what to write when the teacher asks the children to write about what their fathers do. The father puts a Dr as prefix and pretend to be an advocate although he never went to a law college.

While the men go to work in the city and kids go to bilingual schools during the day, the housewives have plenty of time. Some of them find themselves trapped in the countries. They try to learn painting, tennis, card games and golf. Those who cannot find things to occupy themselves end up drinking. Carmen, one of the characters in the novel, asks her maid to bring a glass of Rutini ( upscale argentine brand) wine as soon as she gets up. She drinks it in the bathroom even before brushing her teeth. The kids take to drugs. They do it freely making use of the protected environment of the gated community which is off limit for police and law enforcement.

In the countries everyone talks only in US dollars even while buying and selling among themselves. A painting made by of one of the residents is sold to a neighbour in dollars.The prices of properties are, of course, quoted in dollars in Argentina in general.

The novel gives an account of what goes on in the golf courses. Golf is not only for fun and relaxation. The fairways of the course are the places where contacts are established and cultivated and business deals are made. Argentina is full of deal makers and contacts are vital for business and success.

When any Korean calls the golf club of Los Altos, the starter is under instructions from the committee to tell them that the course is full or quote very high green fees to deter them from coming. This is not just fiction. It is a fact in most golf clubs in Argentina and Latin America. Korean players are not welcome since they are perceived as rude, quarrelsome and discourteous to other players. The Koreans ahve found a solution to this problem. They have established their own golf courses in many countries of Latin America including in Argentina.

This is the first novel of Claudia Piñeiro I have read. She has impressed me as a talented writer with a sensitive understanding and perceptive analysis of the Argentine society. She has a keen eye for details and her commentaries are apt and sharp.

The Thursday widows was chosen for the award of the best novel of the year in 2005 by Clarin, the largest circulated newspaper of Argentina. A movie with the same title based on the book was released in 2009.

This is the second novel I have read fully in Spanish language and managed to finish the 318 pages in one week. Hmm.. it seems I might read more books in Spanish.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

La segunda vida de las Flores- Argentine novel by Jorge Fernandez Diaz

La segunda vida de las Flores- the second life of Flores - is a delightful novel which deals with love, affairs and emotions in a typical Porteño ( Buenos Aires city) way. It is about the conquests of Machos and the way they get it back from the Latino women who play their own games and how the two sides seek and elude each other.

The story starts with the character of Leno Frangolini who is a legendary seductor. He has affairs with dozens of women. He enjoys the chase and hunts them in cafes, bars and Milongas ( Tango parties) . He moves from one lover to the next smoothly and pleasantly without causing hurt to them. When he turns eighty, he goes for his last conquest ( reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez´s last book ¨memory of my melancholy whores¨) to a Milonga and picks up a woman who had always wanted to dance with him but was never invited by him. She is thrilled when he takes her on the floor and leads with the touch of a maestro. But Leno´s body gives up. It is way behind his spirit and causes a sudden pain in the waist causing a minor disaster on the dance floor. He comes back home, shows his album of affairs to his disciple Fernandez, goes to sleep and dies....
Fernandez, the disciple of Leno, is a journalist. He falls in love with Milagros the Mexican girl who has come to Buenos Aires for a photo shoot of Palermo neighbourhood. Her real reason for coming to Buenos Aires is to look for her Argentine father Durmes , who abandoned his Mexican wife with four small kids including Milagros. She wants to take revenge on the irresponsible father. Fernandez helps her in locating him. Milagros runs the car over her father in the street, killing him. The next day she escapes to Mexico. Fernandes is unable to get over his love who has just disappeared without even a goodbye kiss. He goes to Mexico looking for her desperately. He tracks her down in a small town away from Mexico city. But he gets a shock when he discovers that Milagros is living with her Lesbian friend. Disillusioned, he gets back to Buenos Aires and publishes a novel on the story of Milagros. At the launching of the book many of the lovers of his guru Frangolini and another lover of Durmes turn up.

The novel is not just about the Macho affairs. Female characters such as Colorada, Nerina and Amapola have equally fascinating adventures and escapades. Colorada is bored with her married life with a successful husband, lovely kids and a perfect family in the eyes of the others. She goes for an online romance with a guy who turns out to be a complete liar. Mora is addicted to romance and conquers the conqueror Leno himself. But when the conqueror leaves her for other adventures and comes back later for a second time, she turns him down saying.. there is no more cooking in the kitchen... She philosophises ¨love is an energising driving force which makes one want to be with another person. When there is no drive, why keep a prisoner?¨She turns out to be a narcissist mother interfering with the life and love affairs of her daughter, trying to advise her to get the ideal husband, whom she could never find. Nerina is a puzzle to the conquerors and confuses even the Peronists with her ambivalent political inclinations. Prof Murena, who is hypnotised by her love goes round and round in his cyle around the pond in Palermo, seeing her ghost. Then there is Patricia the boss of Fernandez who is a practical no-nonsense woman. She takes care of Fernandez when he gets lost in love and frustrations. She understands the weaknesses of the romantic Fernandez and rescues him without judging him or manipulating him.

The story brings out the essence of the life and spirit of the inhabitants of Buenos Aires, called as Porteños. The locale of the story is Palermo , the upper middle class neighbourhood.

Montecarlo bar/cafe is the scene of conquests and seductions. This is the hunting ground of the Great seductor and his disciple. The cafes and bars play an important part not only in novels but in the real life of the Porteños. They sit there for hours together reading, thinking and fantasising when they are alone. Friends sit together talking, debating and arguing about every subject under the sun. Lovers exchange glances and endearments and are lost in long kisses, intoxicationed with the wines and the caffeine of the cafe cortado.

No porteño story wil be complete without therapy and psycho analysis. The Porteños are obesessed with the shrinks as much as they are attached to books, parks and cafes. The Great seductor holds forth on the psychology of women and the art of dealing with them. He classifies his women into two types; precious stones and semiprecious stones. As he grows older he settles for semiprecious ones which are less demanding. He sums up his philosophy with a typical Porteño remark, ¨each makes his or her own pelicula ( film ) .¨

This is the first novel I have read in the original Spanish language. I surprised myself finishing this 246 page book in one week. I had always preferred to read Latin American novels in English translation since I was afraid that it would take months for me to complete them in Spanish language. I am now encouraged to try more books in Spanish.

The author Jorge Fernandez Diaz works for La Nacion newspaper of Argentina. This is his latest novel published in October 2009. He has a bit of the touch of Mario Vargas Llosa, my favourite Latin American author.