I Remember – #901

I remember yet another fantasy/sci-fi phase, when I read Lavie Tidhar’s Osama – incredible – and Peter F Hamilton’s The Reality Dysfunction – decidedly less so.

-10 March 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

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Short Story Review – Oliverio Coelho – Sun-Woo (trans. Janet Hendrickson)

Elías Garcilazo is forty, comes from a moderately well-off family, wears Italian suits and considers himself something of a seducer.  He is a writer, the kind who is ‘capable of winning a municipal prize or negotiating a spot on the cover of a cultural supplement’.  Thoroughly mediocre, he is convinced, at forty, that there’s always time.

Except there isn’t, of course.  But this is not a story about accepting – or rejecting – time and its ravages.  No, instead, Sun-Woo is about an erotic abyss, a dark, stifling horror where imprisonment can provide release, and freedom is crippling.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Garcilazo celebrates some of his stories being translated into French by visiting Paris.  He is unimpressed at the lack of enthusiasm at bookstores (he his fewer admirers and readers than he would like, and wants for critical appreciation.  He likely deserves this neglect, though this is something he isn’t quite ready to admit to himself).  At any rate, he goes ‘to the Far East’, specifically to South Korea, where he is lost among the unfamiliar foods, letters, signs, people.

Now here, a woman.  She enters his life without fanfare, though she will soon come to encompass it totally.  Sun-Woo is sitting across from him in an inexpensive restaurant, though she oozes sophistication and elegance.  He’s swept up, and very soon they are engaging in passionate, hours-long sex.

He wakes the next morning alone.  The door to the tiny apartment is locked, the windows are sealed, and there is food in the refrigerator to last some time.  He cannot escape, and – decides he doesn’t really want to.  Not yet.  It’s striking how, at least initially, Garcilazo takes his imprisonment in his stride.  He perceives it as freeing, and here Oliverio Coelho plays his hand:

He let out a bitter laugh: he had no time left to be a genius.  Sun-Woo nodded, as if she understood.  Forty years.  Roberto Bolaño died at fifty.  Ten years were not enough to cultivate a genius’ submissive state and die victim to an absurd disease.  Ten years were not enough for his writing to warm his death.  If he couldn’t be a genius, he at least could extend his life expectancy by giving up writing.  He’d never thought of it before…

What to make of the man who was always going to be a genius, just not yet?  When does ‘not yet’ turn into never?  Earlier than you think, I expect, however horrible the realisation might be.  Garcilazo, by being trapped in the sex dungeon of a mysterious Korean woman, is able to side-step all of this.  He never needs to bother with any kind of self-actualization and instead can simply succumb to mouth, breast, vagina, orgasm.  There’s nothing to it.

Garcilazo accepts all of this easily, too easily.  He wonders, briefly, if anyone is, right now, reading his books while he is contained within the apartment.  But then he forgets about it.  He never panics or becomes overly concerned, and in fact remains quite calm throughout.  His composure remains collected even when he is bound and blindfolded, and then sexually abused by two unknown women.  Whatever alarm he may feel remains clinical, detached.

What does it mean to have a sudden escape from whatever ambition we have shackled ourselves to?  Coelho seems to suggest that while there is relief, there’s no fulfillment, either.   Garcilazo is as exactly as satisfied and content as he was beforehand, which is to say – not much.  He’s a mediocre man living a thoroughly ordinary life, and has so little imagination, really, that falling victim to Sun-Woo reads as no more interesting than having a write-up about his work in a magazine, or boarding a plane to Europe in order to sample the riches of the Old World.

The story ends with Garcilazo injured and able to escape, and this is when, finally, his mind starts to break.  To be free – whether again or at all – is a humbling burden, and perhaps its true that for far too many of us it’s simply too great a challenge.  For Garcilazo it is.  If he escapes his confinement then the clock starts again, and as he gets older the likelihood of replicating Bolaño’s success, of being recognised as a genius and valued highly for his work, becomes slim.  And nobody wants to have to admit failure.  It’s hard enough to fail an afternoon, or a day, or have a bad week.  But the failure of a complete life?  How can someone possibly admit that to themselves and continue living?  Better, then, to accept your confinement in whatever form it takes.

Sun-Woo is a short story by Argentinean writer Oliverio Coelho, and was translated by Janet Hendrickson.  This short story was published in the Open Letter collection, The Future is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction.

Author Oliverio Coelho
Title Sun-Woo
Translator Janet Hendrickson
Nationality Argentinean
Publisher Open Letter

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

I Remember – #900

I remember my friend Kane, who would come to my apartment on Turbot Street and read Cortázar’s Hopscotch on the balcony, and smoke and drink cheap red wine.  At the time – forgive me, I was young and stupid – I though reading translated fiction was weird or somehow wrong.

-9 March 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

Short Story Review – Youssef Rakha – The Secret History of Atheism

 The shantytown boys were escorted to an abandoned construction site, stripped and made to kneel with their faces in piles of cement. They were sodomised till the sun went down, struck with cables to the head or the spine when they cried out. At night they were packed into a truck and driven through a tributary of the Suez highway. They were abandoned bleeding and half-conscious by the side of the road.

What happens to the radicalised young when their revolution is snuffed out before it manages to gain any kind of critical weight or broader social acceptance?  See above.

The ‘Yaroslavsky Brothers’, as they call themselves, are led by four university students and are, for all their fine proclamations and grand ideals about a ‘Godless Nile State’, naive and very, very young.  Their resistance to Egypt is to listen to death metal, to take drugs, to slap one another on the back about their new independent state.  And, as always, nation-states tend to take these kinds of threats very, very seriously, even when it could all easily be hand-waved away as an elaborate prank by passionate but young (so young) and misguided (so misguided) men (always mostly men).

On the third day a Special Operations detachment entered the State in the guise of citizens-to-be. They found less than fifty Yaroslavskys dressed in fatigues, fewer girls than young men. The militants blasphemed religiously, taunting each other for half-hearted sacrilege. They wore Richard Dawkins buttons and swore at each other using the English term god-bitch.

As mentioned, nation-states take this kind of thing seriously because you can never be quite sure which spark will alight, and it’s best to stamp out resistance before it has a chance to take hold. Youssef Rakha’s story, The History of Atheism, knows this, and knows also that the upper echelons of the ruling political class will laugh and smirk about these rebellions while simultaneously brutally killing those responsibility.  It’s all a joke, on every side, but nonetheless people end up dead.

Of particular interest is the casual, embedded nature of technology and websites.  This particularly resistance group was right on the cusp of the world we have today, but they were just a little bit too early.  Three years later and who knows what might have happened?  But it is 2005 and YouTube is in its infancy.  Facebook is a toddler.  Twitter doesn’t yet exist.  These tools, for all of their flaws, are extremely capable of spreading messages all across the world, and a visible resistance is one that may – may – have a chance to survive.

But The Yaroslavsky Brothers didn’t have that luxury, and were unable to properly take advantage of the world’s idle internet users, the chattering political classes from rich countries, fellow resistors from other oppressed nations.  And so they died, brutally, horribly, and it was all over.  In five days.

Rakha’s story is short, coming in at under 900 words, but there’s a lot here.  It’s fitting to be this short, too, because it underscores the candle-flame of the resistance.  It didn’t last long, let’s not dwell on it.  All another thousand words would do is wallow in the pain and anguish of their final days, which were also sadly their first days.

Short, yes, but full.  We are witnesses to both the resistors and the government, and also too the narrator, an easy stand-in for the author, who recalls sympathetically the movement will acknowledging its flaws and lamenting the end.  It didn’t need to happen, but it did, and this is what might be learned from it.  Or at least that is how it reads.  It is a history, after all, and surely by now we’ve learnt the importance of paying attention to history, right?

The Secret History of Atheism is a short story by Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha.  You can read the story online at Minor Literatures.

Author Youssef Rakha
Title The Secret History of Atheism
Nationality Egyptian
Publisher Minor Literatures

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

I Remember – #898

I remember sending my friend David an email – perhaps three times, maybe more – which contained only a long quote from Mario Vargas Llosa outlining his happiness at being able, each day, to write, and how he had spent his life as he had dreamed, in writing, and was somehow paid for the privilege.  I used it as a rallying cry for us both.

-7 March 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

I Remember – #897

I remember Kellyanne Conway’s drawn face and shrewish habit of interrupting people in order to spew bile, and Steve Bannon’s pouched sagging face and his incel-like desire to ‘burn it all down’ and start, I suppose, afresh, but in a way that would leave him on top, of course.

-6 March 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.