Category Archives: Open Letter Press

77 by Guillermo Saccomanno. Translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger

77 by Guillermo Saccomanno Title: 77
Author: Guillermo Saccomanno
Translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger
Publisher: Open Letter
ISBN: 978-1940953892
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 220
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Books written to defy, to present various points of view, and above all to show us that we can and should raise voices against powers are books that I love to read. It makes me feel stronger, it makes me want to protest, and more than anything else it makes me feel that I have companions and not alone in the world when it comes to issues close to my heart. 77 is one such book that held me by my throat and being and I just had to finish it in almost three sittings or so. The book still lingers in my memory, and I know that it will for a long time to come.

 So, what is the book about?

 The book is set in Buenos Aires, 1977. A time that is considered to be a part of the darkest days of the Videla dictatorship, from the time he seized power in 1976. At the heart of the book is Gómez, a gay high-school literature teacher, trying very hard to keep a low profile as his friends and students begin to disappear. This is the time when questioning is forbidden, and people aren’t allowed to live the way they wish to.

 Things also start spiralling when he gives shelter to two dissidents in his house, and to make things worst he is having an affair with a homophobic cop who is loyal to the government and no one else. The book is told in flashbacks – from 2007 to 1977 – jumping back and forth.

 I was stunned reading this novel. I didn’t know what to feel for some time and then I realized that I was scared. Scared of such a regime being thrust upon us (though it seems that day isn’t very far) and how we would react or live in that case. Living under a dictatorship isn’t easy. At the same time, it isn’t very hard for people to get used to it, which is most fearful.

Saccomanno’s writing is fluid and clear. In most parts, I thought of it to be autobiographical and I don’t think I was far from the truth. The moral, social, and intellectual dilemmas that present themselves make the book so haunting and real. Is literature dead? Is sexual preference dead? Is raising your voice dead? What is alive anymore?

 77 is a book not just about a year – about people, their opinions, the regime that wants a mental shutdown of its people, a state that will have nothing but totalitarianism at the helm of things. 77, to me was more than just a book. It is about a literary soul that is trapped and is the story of one man trying to make sense in a world of madness and inhumanity, lurking in almost every corner. It is a book that shows you what shouldn’t be repeated. We can only hope and pray.

 

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Book Review: The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda

Title: The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda
Author: Merce Rodoreda
Publisher: Open Letter
ISBN: 978-1934824313
Genre: Literary Fiction, Short Stories
Pages: 255
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Short stories have always been close to my heart. More than novellas and novels. I do not know why but they are. Short stories are more compassionate – I do not know why again but I think they are. Honestly sometimes they also say more than full-length novels can and I have repeatedly said and maintain that.

The minute I started reading, “The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda”, I knew there was something different about this one. These 30 stories address every grim complexity of life and longing, heartache (very subtly done), capturing the necessary elements of chaos and peace. I had not heard of Merce Rodoreda before this book, and I am certain most people have not.

Merce Rodoreda’s stories take the extra leap that is required – of venturing into the unknown and writing something so worthwhile. For instance, in, “Friday June 8” a homeless girl ties a rock around her new born baby’s throat, a product of rape and throws her into the river. Shocking? Yes! But it is the prose that is used while writing this which will get you to weep silently. Stories such as these make you wonder: Should I continue reading this? And you know that you must, because it is about the writing and the delicate plots that will make you want to.

“Before I Die” is another such story. A housewife tries to come to terms with her husband’s past love, who she got to know of through the secret letters in his suitcase. The emotion and sensibility of the wife are well captured. “Carnival” on the other hand is a simple and poignant love story (I can safely say that), of a man and a woman (strangers) dressed in carnival outfits and walking together.

Most of the stories are short and that’s how it should really be – giving away some and hiding some. The stories come from three different collections published in 1958, 1978, and the last one seems to have been collected after her death. The stories are published in a chronological order and as the reader reads along, the different writing styles are clear – from simple to more experimental towards the end.

There is wide range to these stories, and enough and more for every kind of reader. Rodoreda goes into the heart of the human condition and churned out these brilliant stories. I would highly recommend this one, as I am all for short stories.

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Book Review: The Book of Happenstance by Ingrid Winterbach

Title: The Book of Happenstance
Author: Ingrid Winterbach
Publisher: Open Letter Press
ISBN: 978-1-934824-33-7
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 254
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

The Book of Happenstance begins with a loss, as a linguistic specialist’s home is robbed and defaced, with her precious sea-shell collection stolen. While the theft of the sea-shell collection may seem minor, it is this fact that builds the entire story of love, loss, science, language and relationships. I had never heard of Ingrid Winterbach prior to this book, and now that I have read this book, I will for sure read more works written by her.

Helena is a lexicographer of the Afrikaans language. She doesn’t want to do anything else but understand the essence of life, what it means to be alive and why live at all. She wants to know why she is here and why her life matters. For me that struck a personal chord throughout the book, after all, don’t we all want to know that at some point in our lives?

Helena’s life is estranged at the same time. She is divorced, rarely sees her daughter, her extended family is dead, and she has had a series of love affairs, trying to make sense of every single one of them. Helena has written a novel which has not been successful. When she gets the opportunity to move to Durban for a project, she jumps at it, only to get robbed after three months and is left devastated. Getting no help from the local police, she decides to solve the theft on her own with the help of her new friend from the Museum of Natural History, Sof. While she investigates, she mulls and ponders over her life – her ex-husband, her losses, her gains and begins to fall in love with her married boss.

As events unfurl themselves around her, Helena begins to realize the importance of ‘happenstance’ – the accidents which occur over a period of time to species, which allow them to adapt more successfully than their predecessors.

This novel takes the reader on a complex rollercoaster ride. Winterbach has structured the entire novel of course around Helena’s life; however she has masterfully managed to embody the concept of evolution around her life as well. The concept is striking and more so are the words, which are skillfully translated by the author and Dirk Winterbach. While there is a pervasive sense of dread and foreboding in the novel, there is also a sense of hope and wanting to live life to the fullest, which Helena ultimately realizes and wants to figure it all out. Read this book. It might get you thinking.

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