Monday, March 29, 2010

Front List / Back List: Broken Glass Park by Alina Bronsky and Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Apologies for the late post. Blogger's Picasa picture service is down and I loathe link based pictures. So... That's what I gave you in the end.

The Front List title being reviewed today will be released tomorrow at respectable bookstores everywhere. I highly recommend it. It fits into nearly any reader's spectrum.

The Back List title is Aura by Carlos Fuentes, which recently came back into attention when the author accepted an honorary degree in a country that has banned the book.

Something that he rightfully grumbled about.

From The Front List

Broken Glass Park by Alina Bronsky. Translated by Tim Mohr. Fiction. Europa Editions. Trade paperback. ISBN: 9781933372969. 336 pp. $15.

Coming of age novels are often described as turbulent or chaotic. The more reserved expressions describing the "formative years" have seemingly gone by the wayside with doilies, chastity and fair play. The list of novels, short stories and fictive memoirs that deal with the chaos of those awkward (another cliche word) years before adulthood are legion, and not all are equal.

Legion of course is not a flattering image to conjure when describing a sub-genre of fiction, but it is apropos. It is also important to recognize that though there are many of these stories there are few successful modern attempts. There is a nostalgia found in the reminiscent writings of aging writers that can lack profundity, just as there can be a dated sense of life in more earnestly written books from decades ago.

Think of Salinger, Twain or Dickens.

That is precisely what makes Alina Bronsky's Broken Glass Park both timely and important. Published way back in 2008 to wide acclaim in Germany, Broken Glass Park is just now making its way to the US via the conveyor belt of works in translation that is Europa Editions. Europa has both impeccable taste and what apparently is a tireless work ethic. They're catalog is well worth a lengthy perusal.

In the case of Broken Glass Park the publisher had what amounted to a no-brainer to work with. It is a young author's first book, written with alarming narrative power and contains a heart-breaking tale that is sure to scratch even the most hardened of hearts.

Sacha Naimann is seventeen years old and extremely intelligent. She is devoted to her studies with a blinding sense of purpose. She is the eldest of three children, poor, Russian and living in an ethnic ghetto in Germany. Her stepfather is in prison for murdering her mother and the man who the mother had taken up with after him. Her entire life revolves around two furious engines. One is the motivation to excel and escape the life of the poor, alienated Russians in her housing development. The other is to violently kill her stepfather and avenge her mother.

Ah, not your ordinary coming of age novel. While many have described the book as dealing with "life on the fringe" or "life on the margins" I find these terms to be somewhat off mark, and well, cheaply convenient. Nor is there an element of "shock value" to the drugs and sex found in the book. These promiscuous scenes are rendered matter of fact, neither being particularly shocking or extraordinary in content or revelation.

What is extraordinary and what makes the book unique is the violence and anger that live inside of young Sacha. The violence of the "margins" is an external one. One you've read about and seen in books and movies, or perhaps have lived with yourself. The inward drive to slay your mother's murderer is hopefully not something you have experienced before.

It is precisely this dark nature that changes the book from merely being a rendering of the awkwardness of youth or the hardships of poverty. The book is about a talented young person whose growth has been twisted and perverted by the horror of their past. In some ways young Sacha has already outgrown her youth and in others she is cruelly atrophied, stunted and ill equipped to deal with life.

It is a book about life on the dark side of human emotion and perhaps what is most intrinsically evident in this wonderful debut novel is the fact that our darker motives are not as close to the margins as we would like to think.

Such dreadful realizations are what makes Broken Glass Park more than the sum of its parts.

From The Back List

Aura by Carlos Fuentes. Translated by Lysander Kemp. Fiction. Bilingual Edition. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Trade paperback. ISBN: 9780374511715. $13.

Last week the great Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes accepted an honorary doctorate from the University of Puerto Rico. In his address he brought up the fact that his book, Aura, was still banned from educational curriculum and from schools throughout Puerto Rico. Irony of ironies.

So in honor of that ban I'd like to call your attention to this very uncommon book. Let me start by saying that it is supposedly notoriously difficult to translate. In order to create a sense of timelessness Fuentes employs narrative perspectives that essentially eliminate or marginalize the past, present and future tenses.

The novella is short and thankfully so. I don't mean to say that it is boring or poorly written, because the opposite is obviously the case. It is oppressive though, both in content and atmosphere. The story is unmanning and vertiginous and thus, a small page count comes as some relief to the astounded reader.

Felipe Montero is young, bookish and somewhat adrift. It is because of this situation that he throws himself headlong into the project of editing the memoirs of the late General Llorente. The stacks of papers and writings that he catalogs at the General's home is only the beginning of young Montero's problems. Enter the General's widow, Consuelo.

The novella quickly becomes a combination of ghost story, romance and paranormal thriller of an order that even the original Twilight Zone rarely touched upon. Consuelo's beautiful niece Aura enters the story and quickly she and Felipe fall in love. Meanwhile certain congruences begin to emerge between Felipe and Aura and the story of the General and his lifelong love, Consuelo, whose odd obsession with her lost youth seems to manifest in a odd affection for Felipe.

Worse for young Felipe is the fact that Aura is inconsistently present and seems to come and go, appear rather, in a manner that further unmans Felipe. The young historian navigates the claustrophobic corridors of the house in a stupor, which buys the fantastical elements of the novel some time. At times you begin to doubt Felipe's sanity, just as he begins to doubt it himself. As a reader you almost become upset at the notion that your narrator might be unreliable.

Really, you aren't sure what's going on until that first moment of horrific clarity.

Confused yet? Good. Intrigued? Even better.

Now go read it. It's banned so you should do something guilty while reading it. Like holding a copy of Lolita in your other hand.

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