Tagged: family

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)

2. Reading: Children and the Afterlife of State Violence

Children and the Afterlife of State Violence. Memories of Dictatorship (Palgrave Macmillian, 2016) is based on the doctiral thesis of Daniela Jara. It treats transgenerational transmissions of memory in affective terms in the Chilean context. Through individual and group interviews, Jara opens up the discussions about the transmission of historical trauma in family contexts. She does, however, not understand the family as a necessary unit for investigation, but rather, an ideal case for the observation of affective transmission. The book is full of amazing stories and interpretations about growing up during the dictatorship (1973-1990), and what consequences a culture of fear can have on the communicative patterns among family members and with outsiders. The book is especially concerned with descendants of the disappeared and political prisoners.

When and where did I read it?

During a very intense week, in which I read two more works on transgenerational transmission of memories, watched several documentaries of the so-called post-generations of different Latin American countries, and mixed these with a soap opera about a family in the German Democratic Republic.

How did I come across the book?

I was searching for books to review for a special issue of a journal edited by some of the MemoriAL people. I wanted to connect different books on the topic of transgenerational memories, and was lucky enough to find several (upcomming!).

12. Reading: the things i am thinking while smiling politely

Sharon Dodua Otoo is my latest discovery in contemporary literature. She recently won the Ingeborg-Bachmann Prize for a short story about an egg at a German breakfast table. The book I read is her first novel: the things i am thinking while smiling politely (edition assemblage, 2012). In it, Otoo describes the end of a marriage with two children from the perspective of the abandonned wife. The story can be read in at least two different ways: from front to back, or from back to front, as every chapter ends with three dots, and also starts with them. The chapters a numerated from ten to one, and interspersed with what the author quite accurately calls “shrapnels”: parts of hurtful sentences one can imagine in the unspoken fights ensuing during the break-up.

But that’s only half of the story, as it is also a novel about race and prejudice contextualized right at the heart of Berlin Kreuzberg. Otoo wouldn’t be Otoo if she didn’t insert one or another side kick about white-german difficulties with The (black) Other. We learn about harassment at school, well meaning but ignorant white women trying to be friends, and the politics of (re-)naming in divorce. A friend of mine recently did an interview with Otoo for Frankfurter Rundschau (in german), in which Otoo explains that authors (people in general?!) could and should be much more creative in their use of language when it comes to dismantling prejudice. Her text about the egg (Herr Gröttrup setzte sich hin) is an example of this, and a logical consequence of her activist work in the Black German Community. After the things… I am curious about Herr Gröttrup…, because this creativeness in the use of words does not yet come through that clearly. Still, the things… is an impressive and touching account of a hurt and angry woman that never risks the sentimental.

How did I come across the book?

I admit I heard about Sharon Dodua Otoo for the first time when she won the Bachmann prize. Then I saw the interview with her in Frankfurter Rundschau, so I decided to have a look at her texts. A few snipets from Herr Gröttrup… hooked me, but since I am no fan of short stories, I asked at the local bookstore for a novel, and they offered me this.

When and where did I read it?

On a train ride from Konstanz to Berlin. It’s little less then a hundred pages, so it’s easily doable on that ride. A noisy waggon did not frustrate my endeavour, as it is a very enjoyable read, and a convincing story.

“I was dancing to “It’s Raining Men” and feeling on-top-of-the-world. My beer bottle microphone in one hand, my eyes closed and my voice bouncing off the walls. Singing like no one can hear! (Except I did have the feeling that some poor Kazakhstani peasant on the far side of the Mugodzhar Hills had just been wrested from peaceful slumber as I crescendoed on “God bless mother nature!” Never mind.)” p.44

8. Reading: The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (2001, Virago) is a book about the cruel workings of families. Even though there’s no actual assassin in it, several people die along the way. The protagonist Iris Chase describes the life of her sister Laura, who committed suicide at the age of 25. This story is intertwined with Laura’s posthumously published novel, The Blind Assassin, a mixture of science-fiction and dime-novel romance. The overall topics in recounting the short life of Laura and it’s repercussions in the life of Iris are intrigue, moral and provincial high society, and how things are covered up in families for the sake of guarding appearance. It is unclear to what degree all family members were conscious of rotten apples, but they get to a point when they can no longer be ignored.

I like to imagine that Laura could have been autistic in a time when this diagnose would not yet exist. She’s often described as special, taking things all too literal and relating colors to feelings, among other things (I know, this is a very simplistic idea of autism, and I’m convinced the lightness of the “traits” is intentional from the author’s perspective). The story also shows how the abuse of one family member can affect the life (and effectively screw) of others, it’s lesson about how all play their parts in the conspiracy, and that one has to break off to actually break the cycle. Yet, in the end no one is right, and nothing is going to be right ever again.

When I was younger, I would close to never read books of more than 200 pages. I think Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 changed my mind here. However, I still find it astonishing how different long books work. The moment I actually get engaged in the stories is when the average 200-pages book already comes to an end. The art clearly is to make you read those first 200 pages, of course. Atwood made it, and by the middle of The Blind Assassin I almost didn’t want to put it away, and only did so because it was late at night and I had to be fresh for another day in the field.

How did I come across the book?

It was a Christmas present from a befriended couple. They said they thought it might be interesting to me because it treated topics like family memories, and because the author had a reputation for developing multi-dimensional female characters. Boy were they right.

When and where did I read it?

I took it to the field and started on the plane there. Since it is quite a doorstopper, it took me a while to finish. I’m glad I took it, and certainly hadn’t expected it would fit so nicely with my research interests in the genesis of middle class family life. Even though it is placed in Canada, it gave me some inspiration on what topics to look for in the interviews with my informants here in Colombia. So one answer to my earlier query about what to read in the field might be to tempt fate and take something you didn’t even think could be useful there.

It was only three weeks after this that Aimee fell down the stairs. I mourned her, of course. She was my daughter. But I have to admit I mourned the self she’d been at a much earlier age. I mourned what she could have become; I mourned her lost possibilities. More than anything, I mourned my own failures. (p. 533)