Category: Reading List 2017

16. Reading: Lo que no aprendí

Many novels are announced as treating memory and family, or memory and gender, or memory and politics, or memory and whatever else. Memory seems to be a particularly well vending attribute. Unfortunately, so many of the books announced that way don’t actually talk about memory, but in memories, and confusing these two, one could easily guess everything was memory. One of the blurbs to Margarita García Robayo’s Lo que no aprendí (Malpaso, 2014) therefore allerted me. It said, Margarita would unite memories as if they were flowers. Aesthetically, the comparison of her writing with flowers does most definitely hold. But what Lo que no aprendí has to say about memory is more complicated than that.

Contrary to the common-sensical idea, the difficulty of remembering (read: re-member-ing) in the novel might actually be the invention. To handle those flowers creatively, as if uniting them in a beautiful bouquet for the funeral of a controversial figure, effacing any trace of a more complicated, more nuanced, personality, is the real work for Catalina, the protagonist of the novel. The author presents us with this bouquet of Catalina’s mostly happy childhood memories in Cartagena. In a second part, however, she explains the uses, not of the flowers, but of the bouquet, to us readers, and we come to realize that beautiful flowers can be conventions covering up for the things that cannot, and in the case of funerals conventionally should not, be said. The flowers, it turns out, are memories of a different life, of a different Catalina who has little to do with the woman that today lives in Buenos Aires.

How did I come across the book?

I saw a good friend of mine mention it in a Facebook post from a bookstore in Bogotá, asking for the best book its customers had read in 2016. It is most definitely in the top three of my 2017, thus far.

When and where did I read it?

I found the time and place particularly matching in this experience: A warm summer week in Constance can at least temperature-whise keep up with Cartagena, where the first part of the novel is set. I finished the second part on a lazy sunday morning in bed, which also combined well with a loft in Buenos Aires. But it made me wonder: is Buenos Aires Latin America’s sunday morning in bed?

… si no te gustan mis recuerdos, empieza a juntar los tuyos; y si tampoco te gustán ésos, cámbialos, y así: es lo que hacemos todos. (p. 182)

14. Reading: Chapinero

Without knowing, I already had a book (edited) by Andrés Ospina, of which I am very fond because it has a CD with it. On that very CD is a song called Río Bogotá by a band named Sociedad Anónima. This song has always fascinated me for a line that goes: “Nunca se te ocurra ir con tu novia al Río Bogotá”, which translates to “It should never occur to you to go to the Río Bogotá with your girlfriend”. In the rest of the song, the singer explains that people throw trash into the river and that it’s a health risk to go swiming there. I who I only know the smelly and murky version of the river, was fascinated by the very idea of people actually bathing there. What is more, I never really considered the climate quite warm enough to go swiming outside. But as a Colombian saying goes, gustos son gustos. You can listen to this precious late 1980s rock jewel on youtube.

However, Chapinero (Laguna Libros, 2015) is a novel in which the river Bogotá is never mentioned. But those familiar with the city’s geography might have guessed, rightly, that it’s about the Chapinero district. The history of the quarter, which when Bogota was founded was a distinct settlement, is told in the voices of five different characters through various generations. The first is a Spanish shoemaker arriving around 1655, followed by a struggling father of the late 19th century. Then follows a young adult witness of the quarter’s transformation of the 1930s. The era of rock and hippiedom, in turn, is recounted by the only female character. They are all related to the main protagonist of the novel, who lives in todays Chapinero, through an antique shoehorn.

How did I come across the book?

I was hanging around in bookstores somewhat frequently during my last field trip. And I literally saw it in any one of the ones I visited. Plus, it was on the “Colombian authors to check out” list I had made when I got a gift certificate for a bookstore, together with Carolina Sanín, and Margarita García Robayo.

When and where did I read it?

It took me a while. As can be guessed from my bookmark – a plane ticket from Msocow to Riga – I have started it during my vacations to Moscow. I needed almost a month to finish it, because the number of characters was a little overwhelming in the beginning, and the middle part had it’s lenghts. Only as I started to realize all the characters could be related through family ties and the antique, did I become curious how their stories would unfold. I might read it again, reading not in the order of the book, but each character’s story by itself to better grasp the connections.

Para eso están los vivos. Para preguntales, y no esperar a que se vayan ausentando, hasta eternizarnos la duda. (p. 212)

11. Reading: The Republic of Cousins

Germaine Tillion’s Republic of Cousins. Women’s Oppression in Mediterranean Society (Al Saqi Books, 1983), apart from being a study about kinship and marriage in the southern meditarranean countries, is also an impressive plea for a political approach to the study of culture. From a feminist point of view, Tillion engages in the study of historical and current gender relations in the Mediterranean. She compares data from her own field work with historial sources back to the prophets to show how the place of women in Mediterranean societies is – just like anywhere else – anything but a natural given.

Tillion proposes, furthermore, an “ethnography devoid of virtue”, if it’s a virtue to observe and participate without interpreting what is observed and described. Since Geertz, latest, anthropologists understood that no such thing is actualy possible, because every observation is already shaped by our understandings, and therefore, interpreted in terms of the things we already know. However, it was interesting to see, that these ideas had been around way before Geertz wrote them down (the original work is from the late 1960s). Tillion’s writing offers an interesting mixture of scientific discourse about marriage rules without the pretence of a false objectivity, yet manages to include her political position. She does this transparently but without ever using “I”.

How did I come across the book?

It was recommended to me by my supervisor, because I was searching for more experimental/engaged forms of anthropological writing. I’m not sure it fulfilled this purpose, because I expected something more in the style of Michael Taussig. But it was good to see that “experimental” could also mean something else, and especially Tillion’s willingness to judge other’s customs was interesting to see in an ethnography.

When and where did I read it?

I started during a vacation I was taking right after my latest field trip. I read the first part on my way to and in Berlin, mostly on trains. The second part I finished in Moscow on several nights before bedtime.

13. Reading: Works and Lives

This has been fun! Clifford Geertz is one of those anthropologists whose writing has inspired generations of anthropologists and scholars from other disciplines, as well. I have to admit, however, that I find his theoretical works much more interesting than his fieldwork-based writings. While the latter once are beautifully written stylistically, for my taste they often lack the theoretical vision of his other works. In Works and Lives. The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford University Press, 1988), he dissects the writings styles and construction of a verisimilar perspective on the Other in the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, Bronislaw Malinowski and Ruth Benedict, some of the discipline’s big names.

In six short essays, he shows how these four authors partly owe their place in the discipline to a particular style of writing, each relating to specific aspects of their actual field research, and in alingment with their theoretical proyects. While overall balanced and sensitive to racism and sexism (especially in the cases of the latter three of utmost importance, given their ways into their fields), I found it disappointing to see that only in the essay about the only female anthropologist analyzed in his collection, he found it necessary to speak about her pressumed mental health. While he did judge the other author’s personality traits, only in her case did he go as far as to insinuate “issues”, which was furthermore innecessary to understand her writing.

How did I come across the book?

It was recommended to me by my second supervisor after I presented a chapter on writing affective ethnography at the grad school’s colloquium.

When and where did I read it?

Over the weekend in Konstanz/Zurich. It’s entertaining, insightful and at times very funny. Especially Geertz’s non-fieldwork-based texts have always struck me as beautiful in both scientific and aesthetic aspects, and I am especially thankful for this programmatic advice:

The most direct way to bring field work as personal encounter and ethnography as reliable account together is to make the diary form […] something for the world to read. (p. 84)

10. Reading: Ponqué y otros cuentos

As I said a few times, already, I am not a big fan of short stories. This, mostly, because I really like slow character development and a story that takes time to reveal itself on at least 100 pages. Which is a totally arbitrary approach, I know. Nevertheless, there are always exceptions to my rules, and Ponqué y otros cuentos (Laguna Libros, 2016) by Carolina Sanín is one of them. The collection contains 7 short stories, all of which star strong female characters. It is this aspect I liked most about the stories, which depart from everyday situations like riding a train, listening to the radio, or reading a hand-written note, and usually revolve around quirky aspects of the main character, if not her surroundings. Especially the last two stories stroke chords with me, the darker Carolina en su funeral for its factual approach to loss, and Ponqué, the title story, because it reminded me of the Satanic Verses. This, mostly, because it combines a story of a young woman from Bogota going out to live in New York with the biblical narrative of Joseph (son of Jacob) from the book Genesis.

I was utterly impressed by the accuracy of descriptions and wording. For a long time I haven’t read anything as precise and therefore enjoyable in Spanish, and I am often bored by too long and too forced sentences when reading Colombian authors. I was very happy to see that a different style is possible, and one that appeals to me both in topics and style. And as if marvellous writing wasn’t enough, the book is also really pretty. The edition and illustration are beautiful, and the thick paper makes for a pleasant tactile experience, as well. For so many reasons, this is a book I did not want to stop reading.

How did I come across the book?

I took a creative writing seminar with Carolina Sanín, which turned out to be a live-changing experience. Not because I think writing fiction could be a thing for me – I still don’t, really – but because it happened at a complicated moment in field work and brought back the curiousness about the topic and the willingness to write. I started reading her books only after the seminar, in a way attempting to continue the conversations on writing. Turns out Carolina is not only an amazing teacher, (so if you have a chance to take a course with her: GO DO IT!) but also sticks to all of the rules she teaches. Speaking of authenticity in teaching, she is most definitely a new role model for me to follow.

When and where did I read it?

I started on the plane back from Bogota to Zurich, to make the passage a little lighter. I finished it within the first days while trying to get rid of the jetlag. But fortunately, there are several other works from her left to read in my bookshelf.

1. Reading: Memory, Subjectivities, and Representation

The Year in Readings started with a mission: more ethnographic monographs. The first book I finished, however, does not fit into this category. On the upside, at least it is remotely related to what I do in my research. Memory, Subjectivities, and Representation. Approaches to Oral History in Latin America, Portugal and Spain by Rina Benmayor, María Eugenia Cardenal de la Nuez and Pilar Domínguez Prats (eds.; Palgrave Macmillian 2016) is meant to be an introdcution to oral history work in Latin America, Spain and Portugal. I’ve been doing a more formal review for the Oral History Forum d’histoire orale from the Canadian Oral History Association, which you can find here, if you’d like to have a look.

For the purpose of continuing with my subjective review series, I am just going to mention a few key points. Overall, reading edited volumes is often a challenge, because personally, I am rarely interested in all the contributions. This one had the great advantage, that it were those articles I thought wouldn’t fit my interests, which were the most inspiring. Some of the topics are innovative, like the articles on Lisbon’s tattoo scene, or the performance piece on the Portuguese dictatorship, and I especially liked the articles focusing on female militants from the Southern Cone and on migrant sex workers in Spain. But I would have liked more of that. Most articles are concerned with worker’s history. A real downer was the fact that articles on Latin America were restricted to the Southern Cone and Mexico, giving a somewhat eurocentric idea of the continent, and completely leaving out any indigenous contributions. Given that it is particularly this area where Oral History flourishes in Latin America, I found that quite disappointing. Apart from this (serious!) flaw, the volume is a solid contribution, and might be of interest for people wanting to know more about current trends in the region.

How did I come across the book?

Actually, the journal approached me to ask whether I would review it. I found that flattering and agreed.

When and where did I read it?

In one of Bogota’s amazing public libraries around New Year’s.

8. Reading: Como agua para chocolate

Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (2012, Penguin Random House) was the first Spanish-language book I read in a fairly long time that wasn’t a pain to finish. Even though reading in Spanish is no big deal for me, I often have difficulties in finding my way into the books. Not so this time, because I almost devoured this novel in less then a week. Funny coincidence: I did so mostly at cafés or restaurants, which might have helped in the creation of atmosphere. Funny because the story is structured in twelve recipes, each belonging to a specific event in the life of Tita, the youngest of three sisters in a matriarchic household of rural Mexico during the revolution.

In Como agua…, Esquivel tells the love story between Tita and Pedro, who are not allowed to marry because Tita, as the youngest daughter, is obliged to stay with her mother as long as she lives. Pedro then marries her older sister to be close to her. The rest is family life at its best, lots of conflicts, lots of secrets, some miraculous deaths, and a considerable number of love stories on the side, including occasional pregnancies. I admit the final choice Tita makes didn’t convince me, especially because Pedro turns into a jealous nagger, and their first love-making isn’t exactly built on consent. Also, the ending is a little too much of magical realism for my taste. But let’s say that until chapter eleven, Como agua para chocolate is a fascinating and entertaining read.

How did I come across the book?

I was given a gift certificate for a book store for Christmas, and wanted to invert in female Colombian authors only. That plan didn’t work out for various reasons, so I ended up adding female authors from other Spanish-speaking countries, and ultimately, male Colombian authors, as well. (So be prepared for the next reviews!)

When and where did I read it?

As I said, mostly in cafés or restaurants in Bogota, but also before going to bed. It took me less then a week to finish.

Cada persona tiene que descubrir cuáles son sus detonadores para poder vivir, pues la combustión que se produce al encenderse uno de ellos es lo que nutre de energía el alma. (p. 102)