Monday, June 10, 2019

Raduan Nassar became a Brazilian sensation with his first novel - now published in English, the world will come knocking

Stefan Tobler

This year [2016], as the eyes of the world turn to Brazil – lapping up its food, music, natural beauty and, of course, the sporting extravaganza of the Olympic Games – you need only dip into the country's literature to experience an altogether different narrative.

Brazilian fiction is riding the crest of a wave, which came crashing on to the international scene after a spot as Guest of Honour at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest and most influential trade fair for books. Fresh translations of classic authors have followed in quick succession, as well as striking emergent voices from the generation born after the military dictatorship came to an end in the mid-1980s. No longer need our knowledge of Brazilian writing be limited to the publishing phenomenon Paulo Coelho – whose most famous novel, The Alchemist, holds the Guinness world record for being the most widely translated book by a living author.

Latin American fiction in general is more popular now than ever, partly because of the adventurous and experimental influence of writers such as the Argentinian César Aira and the Chilean Roberto Bolaño, and partly because there is so much that still needs to be written about in Latin America. Subjection, violence and repression on the basis of gender, class, race and politics are so inescapable in the region that its writers, should they choose to, have rich material to draw on. (Take, for example, Bolaño's international bestseller, 2666, set partly in Ciudad Juárez on the Mexico-US border, in which the authorities demonstrate a staggering indifference to hundreds of rapes and murders, all of poor women from the factories.)

I've seen so much urgent and exciting writing break out of the region in recent years that it's no surprise that the press I run, And Other Stories, has a list heavily weighted towards Latin American writers; nor is it surprising that other publishers, among them the independent presses New Directions, Coffee House, Open Letter and Deep Vellum, also have strengths in Latin American writing. There really is more than enough to go around. And though this new-found optimism has begun to falter in Brazil itself – in recession and with politics and industry mired in corruption scandals – this is, in itself, grist for the literary mill.

But one writer you might not expect to burst on to the scene is Raduan Nassar, a recluse who hasn't published a thing in 30 years. And yet his novels – now being published in English for the first time – offer a deep insight into the turmoil of a society riven with divisions of race, class and gender. Nassar's own story is something of an enigma. After publishing two works in the 1970s that revolutionised Brazilian literature, he stopped writing in 1984. He distanced himself from literary coteries and conversations, left the city of São Paulo, and became a farmer. But over the 30-odd years since he withdrew from public life, his fame has continued to grow. Now, he may well be the most highly acclaimed living writer in Brazil. And yet apart from one in-depth interview in 1996, he has refused all approaches from the press and, until now, escaped English attention.

When he turned 80 in November last year, Nassar unplugged his phone. When a Brazilian reporter had called him days earlier, asking for an interview, he had refused, laughing: “I have many defects in my character, but not this one, at least so I think – I'm not a show-off.” Though a colloquium was held in his honour at the University of São Paulo to celebrate the occasion, he refused to go. Nor is his resistance to public acclaim new: his 1975 debut – indeed, only – full-length novel, Ancient Tillage, was only published in the first place after a copy was sent to a publisher without his permission.

Yet Nassar's writing couldn't be kept quiet. After conquering the critics, the Brazilian public gradually discovered his work. After films were made of both the novel and his novella A Cup of Rage, a much wider readership was secured. And though, over the years, the author has resisted translations of his works, he is now being published by Penguin, as only the third ever Brazilian novelist to enter their Modern Classics list, joining the ranks of George Orwell and Marcel Proust.

As a mark of the books' growing status, there are new Spanish translations by the Mexican writer of Down the Rabbit Hole, Juan Pablo Villalobos. French, German and Italian editions already exist, published by leading publishing houses. So if he wished to, Nassar would certainly have plenty to celebrate. And if he won't celebrate, others will.

Nassar's taboo-breaking treatment of sex and his frank depictions of violence, and especially that directed at women, mines the same seam as Bolaño and many other great Latin American writers. In the only interview we have to hold on to, given two decades ago this year, Nassar makes clear the impact that witnessing brutality had on him: “I was seven or eight years old and was up in an orange tree at the bottom of our back yard, when I heard the screams of a woman who was being thrashed from the neighbour's yard […] I could hear the crack of the whip, but I couldn't see anything […] The fact that I could neither see the scene, nor identify the people, must have traumatised me profoundly. There were just the screams and the whipping.”

Nassar's writing is powerful partly because it does not carry moral judgements but rather lived experiences, voiced by narrators who are not always nice people. They offer glimpses into dark forces that exist within every society. His narrators are swept up in dangerous ecstasies, their moral scruples utterly forgotten. Asked about this, he said: “I think one of the preconditions of our supposed freedom is being on friendly terms with the devil. I couldn't imagine leaving him out when writing.”

In 1978, Nassar's fiery and erotically charged novella A Cup of Rage appeared. An older, chauvinist farmer tells of the furious argument that engulfs him and his younger, urban, feminist girlfriend after she spends the night on his farm. Neither character comes out of it well. Nassar gives us the painful glibness of the middle-class woman's liberal posturing as well as an egotistical male, whose mouth runs away from him into bombast and ravings, and whose violence is triggered by something no bigger than leaf-cutter ants: “I wanted silence, since I was enjoying letting my eyes linger on the fresh leaves of the mulberry trees, which stood out in the landscape because of their brazen greenness (beautiful as anything!), but my eyes were suddenly led, and when these things happen you never really know what devil's at work, and, in spite of the mist, I see this: a gap in my hedge…” From this moment, the terrible gender and class chasm that opens up between the two characters carries an electric buzz. A palpable threat of violence is in the air. Their fury speaks more widely to the ugly inequalities in Brazilian society, though of course such injustices are present in our own, too.

The writing has the sheer unstoppable force of a child's temper tantrum, and only on a second read – or as an editor or translator – do you see the intricate patterns and repetitions that combine to produce this crushing emotional onslaught. He plays fast and loose with standard syntax and punctuation to convey the turmoil and onward rush of his characters. Most of his pages-spanning chapters in A Cup of Rage are a single long, evocative sentence. After the languidly drawn-out chapter “The Shower” slowly unwinds its string of progressive verbs – “pulling… rubbing… massaging… scratching” – there is a shift, as the scene approaches the satisfaction of its conclusion, to a more direct past tense: “I only know that I delivered myself absolutely into her hands.”

As I translated the book, I loved the freedom of Nassar's word choices, too. He occasionally makes words up, and mixes colloquial speech with high-flown phrases. When I asked well-read Brazilians they confirmed the individuality of his choices. On one occasion, for example, Nassar has the girlfriend say to the narrator: “It's unbelievable how you are mirrorizing”, the addition of a stuffy suffix suggesting some kind of regurgitated psychobabble.

Ancient Tillage has a story no less highly charged, this time told in a more lyrical prose with Biblical overtones. The narrator, André, is a prodigal son who has fled his family's farm for the city in rebellion against his strict, religious father. André is also running from his love for his sister. Although set on the farm of an immigrant Lebanese family in Brazil (Nassar's own parents arrived in Brazil from the Lebanon in 1920, 15 years before his birth), the novel has a Mediterranean ambience – a pre-modern atmosphere in which classical myth, Greek tragedy, New Testament Galilee and European and Arab cultures rub up against each other. It is the fruit both of the author's breadth of reference and of his interest in the intermingling of cultures that he saw on his own doorstep.

At André's coming-home party, we see a Biblical parable and a Greek myth. A circle of dancers forms as his elderly uncle, like Pan, the ancient god of drunken ruts and debauchery, “took his flute from his pocket, a delicate stem, in his heavy hands and began to blow into it like a bird, his cheeks inflating like those of a child, and his cheeks swelled so much, got so puffy and flushed, it seemed all his wine would flow from his ears, as if from a tap”.

The intensity of Nassar's writing and its fusion of the erotic, natural and mystical have led to comparisons with DH Lawrence, while his untamed language reminds us of his fellow Brazilian Clarice Lispector, who, nearly 40 years after her death in 1977, has recently won the adoration of English readers and, to my delight, featured prominently on almost every Book of the Year list last year.

Someone also suggested that A Cup of Rage has echoes of James Joyce's Ulysses, but Nassar claims to have little time for the literary canon. “It's worse to kneel down before a work of art than to deface it,” he once commented: “It's obscene to raise some so-called great individuals so high that the common man is reduced to the size of an insect.” Nassar's scepticism about idols came, he says, when, as a 19-year-old, he read the work of the philosopher Francis Bacon; reverence for idols, said Bacon, can hinder the progress of knowledge. But it's also probable that Nassar's small-town rural upbringing and his left-wing student days in the late 1950s and early 1960s also increased his distaste for elites and hierarchies.

His desire for work that was physical, agrarian and less solitary was there all along. In 1965 he set himself up as a rabbit farmer only to close the operation down just a couple of years later in order to set up a newspaper with his siblings. He was editor for almost a decade, positioning the paper as a thorn in the side of the dictatorship. It was during this time he started to write fiction, too, and when he left the newspaper in 1974 he dedicated himself to it entirely. But then, in the 1980s, he just stopped – seemingly for good. Why, remains a mystery. In the 1996 interview he suggests that he was fed up with writers' narcissistic need for applause. He decided to redirect his energies into full-time farming. Whatever his reasons, when Nassar dedicated himself to his new venture he went all in, buying 640 hectares of beautiful, lush land, including eight lakes and 80 hectares of virgin forest, three hours' drive from the clamour of São Paulo. He kept the forest and developed the rest into a thriving farm with four silos and fields of wheat, maize, beans, soy and oats. Ten people worked on the farm. “Today, my life is all doing,” he said. “Although it has this in common with literature: I don't know why I'm doing it. So I keep on doing, doing, doing.” (Which makes you wonder if – or, hope that – the “doing” of literature may have continued all along, away from the prying eyes of hungry publishers?)

Now, in another surprise twist to the tale, Nassar has donated his farm to a university, allowing it to set up a campus for agricultural studies on the land. He continues to live in the country much of the time, although he also has a small flat in São Paulo.

He is not a recluse like JD Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. He has nothing against visitors. When in São Paulo, he sometimes welcomes individual visitors, including wandering translators like me. He is happy to talk. He smokes as he talks. His eyes gleam mischievously and his smile is disarming, often broad, at times breaking into laughter. He makes it clear that he hasn't kept up with all the new writing and would prefer to talk about things other than literature. But when our conversation turns to his books, he stresses that for him the most important thing about them was the pleasure he had in their writing, rather than in their critical success. And yet, though he would never say so, it's clear that he takes pride in his work, as he should – but, apparently, without feeling the slightest need to write one sentence more.

Credits:  This article was originally published in 2016 in The Independent.  It has been edited slightly for coherence.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

Walt Whitman


Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose. 


The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
The similitudes of the past and those of the future,
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river,
The current rushing so swiftly and swimming with me far away,
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them,
The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others.

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.


It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,
Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left the rest in strong shadow,
Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south,
Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head in the sunlit water,
Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and south-westward,
Look’d on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,
Look’d toward the lower bay to notice the vessels arriving,
Saw their approach, saw aboard those that were near me,
Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops, saw the ships at anchor,
The sailors at work in the rigging or out astride the spars,
The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants,
The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses,
The white wake left by the passage, the quick tremulous whirl of the wheels,
The flags of all nations, the falling of them at sunset,
The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests and glistening,
The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite storehouses by the docks,
On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank’d on each side by the barges, the hay-boat, the belated lighter,
On the neighboring shore the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night,
Casting their flicker of black contrasted with wild red and yellow light over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.


These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,
I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river,
The men and women I saw were all near to me,
Others the same—others who look back on me because I look’d forward to them,
(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)


What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,
I too had receiv’d identity by my body,
That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.


It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,
Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,

Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.


Closer yet I approach you,
What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance,
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.

Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?


Ah, what can ever be more stately and admirable to me than mast-hemm’d Manhattan?
River and sunset and scallop-edg’d waves of flood-tide?
The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the twilight, and the belated lighter?

What gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand, and with voices I love call me promptly and loudly by my nighest name as I approach? 

What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face?
Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you?

We understand then do we not?
What I promis’d without mentioning it, have you not accepted?
What the study could not teach—what the preaching could not accomplish is accomplish’d, is it not?


Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves!
Gorgeous clouds of the sunset! drench with your splendor me, or the men and women generations after me!
Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!
Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta! stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!
Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!
Suspend here and everywhere, eternal float of solution!
Gaze, loving and thirsting eyes, in the house or street or public assembly!

Sound out, voices of young men! loudly and musically call me by my nighest name!
Live, old life! play the part that looks back on the actor or actress!
Play the old role, the role that is great or small according as one makes it!
Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be looking upon you;
Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the hasting current;
Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air;

Receive the summer sky, you water, and faithfully hold it till all downcast eyes have time to take it from you!
Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or any one’s head, in the sunlit water!
Come on, ships from the lower bay! pass up or down, white-sail’d schooners, sloops, lighters!
Flaunt away, flags of all nations! be duly lower’d at sunset!
Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at nightfall! cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses!

Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are,
You necessary film, continue to envelop the soul,
About my body for me, and your body for you, be hung out divinest aromas,
Thrive, cities—bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers,
Expand, being than which none else is perhaps more spiritual,
Keep your places, objects than which none else is more lasting.

You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers,
We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward,
Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us,
We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently within us,
We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also,
You furnish your parts toward eternity,
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

Monday, May 20, 2019

A Field of Light by Theodore Roethke

Came to lakes; came to dead water,
Ponds with moss and leaves floating,
Planks sunk in the sand.

A log turned at the touch of a foot;
A long weed floated upward;
An eye tilted.

      Small winds made
      A chilly noise;
      The softest cove
      Cried for sound.

      Reached for a grape
      And the leaves changed;
      A stone's shape
      Became a clam.

      A fine rain fell
      On fat leaves;
      I was there alone
      In a watery drowse.

Angel within me, I asked,
Did I ever curse the sun?
Speak and abide.

      Under, under the sheaves,
      Under the blackened leaves,
      Behind the green viscid trellis,
      In the deep grass at the edge of field,
      Along the low ground dry only in August, -
      Was it dust I was kissing?
      A sigh came far.
      Alone, I kissed the skin of a stone;
      Marrow-soft, danced in the sand.

The dirt left my hand, visitor.
I could feel the mare's nose.
A path went walking.
The sun glittered on a small rapids.
Some morning thing came, beating its wings.
The great elm filled with birds.

      Listen, love,
      The fat lark sang in the field;
      I touched the ground, the ground warmed by the killdeer,
      The salt laughed and the stones;
      The ferns had their ways, and the pulsing lizards,
      And the new plants, still awkward in their soil,
      The lovely diminutives.
      I could watch! I could watch!
      I saw the separateness of all things!
      My heart lifted up with the great grasses;
      The weeds believed me, and the nesting birds.
      There were clouds making a rout of shapes crossing a windbreak
           of cedars,
      And a bee shaking drops from a rain-soaked honeysuckle.
      The worms were delighted as wrens.
      And I walked, I walked through the light air;
      I moved with the morning.

Note:  Theodore Roethke (1908-1955) was an acclaimed poet recognized as much for his
technique as the originality of phrasing and imagery.  He is a poet who expresses grief 
and joy with profound lyricism.

Credits:  This poem was found at Voetica Poetry Spoken, where you can hear an 
audio version.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Ghost of Capablanca


Brin-Jonathan Butler

After a summer hustling speed chess in Vancouver to raise funds for my first visit to Havana, in 2000, I met an antique bookseller on the plane ride over who helped me find an apartment in a magical neighborhood just off the Plaza de la Revolución, where Fidel Castro still delivered speeches that occasionally ran for seven hours. A dignified 81-year-old retired doorman stood guard of the street. After moving from his job at Hotel Nacional de Cuba to the newly opened Habana Hilton, he was on duty when Castro and Che Guevara arrived in January 1959 to commandeer the top two floors for their government headquarters. I quickly made friends with all the families on the street. They took me in with more warmth and generosity than the neighborhood where I grew up. I’d been warned about the poverty in Havana; instead, these people illuminated a poverty of spirit I didn’t know I’d had back home.

I returned to Havana the first chance I could and tried to reconnect with the bookseller. He’d told me on the plane that the only thing that disappointed him about Havana was having to leave it. I found out he’d been granted his wish—cirrhosis took his life and he was laid to rest in Havana’s Colón Cemetery. When I got back to the street he’d introduced me to, everyone else had left too. The doorman had died, and the others had found various means off the island. I asked one of my few remaining friends on the block what I should do. “Resolver,” he said. Figure it out.

Artwork by Melissa Roldan

I finally found a place in a very different neighborhood: Cayo Hueso in Centro Habana. People in the street led me to a door up the road from a barber shop, caged bird store, and crushed sugarcane juice stand. I knocked and a latch swung open behind a peephole. A dark burly man with swimming-pool blue eyes unlocked the door and held it open a crack. He had as little English as I had Spanish, so instead of embarking on the usual frustrating pantomime negotiations about the room for rent, he held out two upside-down clenched fists and motioned for me to choose one. This is a ritual he’s repeated every time I’ve seen him for the last 15 years.

I pointed to his left fist, and he opened it to unveil a white knight chess piece. He smirked. “Bueno. Usted primera.” I had first move. He invited me up onto his padlocked rooftop, where his daughter brought a small mug of coffee, two shot glasses of Havana Club rum, and a scratched-up chessboard. His loyal dog, Venus, jumped into his lap and he stroked her fur, and over his shoulder was the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen. I gestured to it, and he solemnly pointed to the board before us. Chess, it was obvious, offered him a view more haunting and lovely than any sunset.

Today this gentleman—let’s call him Fernando—and his wife rent a room in their Centro Habana neighborhood on Airbnb. But many years before Airbnb was legal in Cuba and renting rooms to foreigners was subject to fines and even seizure of property, he provided for his family by secretly leasing a room on the roof of a four-story walk up.

Fernando has Chinese, Spanish, African, and German blood, and it seemed to inform all the features of his face with a noble and almost magical harmony of purpose: getting me to play one more game. On the streets below us, amidst cigar smoke and diesel fumes, the slap of dominoes was heard well into the night, while Fernando and I were invariably playing chess up above. His chessboard was always waiting on his roof, freshly reset with pieces or, more likely, frozen where a game was left off. Up there, Fernando also read from one of a dozen books reliving the games of José Raúl Capablanca, his beloved hero and Cuba’s greatest chess champion. It was Fernando who introduced me to Capablanca. I was obsessed with Bobby Fischer, but for Fernando there was only one gran maestro, not only on the chessboard, but as an artist, a scientist, a philosopher.

Fernando has a booming voice that dipped into a panicked hush for only two men: Castro and Capablanca. In all the years I’ve known him, he’s never mentioned Castro by name. Instead he motions by grabbing an imaginary beard or simply refers to “Him.” Capablanca receives the same treatment for entirely different reasons. His genius was mystical. “Capablanca,” Fernando whispered, “was born in 1888 in Havana to a Spanish army officer. That was the only ordinary thing about him.” He held the title of world champion from 1921 to 1927 and is regarded as one of the great artists of the game. “But he was bigger than the game!” Fernando assured maniacally. “The Yuma at Time magazine put him on the cover in 1925. Brinicito, do you know the other men who were on Time magazine that year? Winston Churchill! Charlie Chaplin! Leon Trotsky! John D. Rockefeller!” He lost only 35 games in his entire professional career, and upon dying in 1942—while watching a chess game at New York’s Manhattan Chess Club—his body was sent back to Havana and honored with a state funeral.

Chess had arrived in Cuba more than four centuries earlier, aboard Columbus’ Spanish ships in 1492, and while the shackles of colonialization were broken with Cuba’s revolution in 1959, chess’ hold on the island nation has proved considerably more durable. They joke in Cuba that what King Midas was to gold, Castro was to politics, but Fernando likes to remind me that chess is 1,500 years old and will be around long after communism or capitalism. “Like a great book that never finishes what it has to say, chess is no closer to being solved. It only gets more beautiful as people try in vain. Just like life off the board, we all resolver.”

Resolver—“to resolve” or, colloquially, “to get by”—remains one of the most vital words in the Cuban vocabulary. Considering the new and unknown challenges ahead for Cubans, perhaps it’s not surprising that chess has never flourished more.

The last time I’d seen Fernando was during Barack Obama’s March 2016 visit to the island, the first time a sitting American president had done so in 88 years. In November, I watched from back home in New York as the island experienced an even bigger political disruption: the death of Fidel Castro, who had inhabited the island like Moby Dick in a goldfish bowl. In January, I wrote Fernando to see if he would help me dig deeper into Cuba’s chess history. I wanted to understand its relevance to today’s culture, and how it might illuminate the tidal waves of change on the island. He wrote back and suggested we begin at the Capablanca Chess Club, the first place he went after his own father could no longer give him a decent game.

Before leaving for Cuba, I met with Bruce Pandolfini at a diner near his Manhattan home. Pandolfini is one of the most sought after—and probably the most famous—chess instructors in history. He served as the Manhattan Chess Club’s executive director from 1984 until 1987. “Capablanca was called invincible,” Pandolfini told me, wiping coffee from his mustache. “Capablanca always claimed his brilliance lay in intuition rather than calculation. It was almost supernatural.”

Stories about the genesis of Capablanca’s genius all have the same basic coordinates regardless of the storyteller, but every version blossoms with unique awe. Pandolfini told of how, at 4 years old, Capablanca was watching his father and uncle play one afternoon. His uncle went to the bathroom, and Capablanca notified his father that his uncle had cheated with his knight. (Capablanca maintained an obsession with knights all his life, and no other player has ever been more of a magician with them.) His father didn’t believe his son knew how to play and challenged him to a game. According to some, Capablanca played his father to a draw. “There are so many myths,” Pandolfini said, laughing. “They all take on a life of their own.”

Pandolfini brought along private artifacts given to him by Capablanca’s late widow, Olga: unpublished photos, a letter, Capablanca’s personal Cuban National Bank book with a lone deposit for $6,000 from his winnings on December 23, 1941. Pandolfini also showed me a prized book of Russian chess openings that a teenaged Bobby Fischer had once carried all over New York for a year. Midway through the book was Fischer’s clunky and strangely printed signature: “BOBBY” in all caps and “fischer” lowercased. In 1965, when Bobby Fischer was denied entry to Cuba for the José Raúl Capablanca Memorial (the Bay of Pigs invasion had increased tensions between Cuba and the U.S.), Fischer competed in the tournament by telex from inside the Marshall Chess Club in New York. Pandolfini relayed Fischer’s moves while José Raúl Capablanca Jr., Capablanca’s only son, did the same for Fischer’s opponent in Havana. Fischer lost, and the following year he was granted entry to Cuba and competed in several exhibitions on the island, including one against Fidel Castro. (Castro won.)

“Olga always believed in reincarnation,” Pandolfini told me while repacking the artifacts in his leather bag. Paul Morphy, the greatest player of his era, died in 1884, and Capablanca was born four years later. Olga believed Morphy’s spirit entered her husband’s body. Capablanca died in 1942, and a year and a day later, on March 9, 1943, Fischer was born. “She was certain Capablanca’s spirit went into Bobby’s genius,” Pandolfini said. “For her it was all a continuation. Fischer always adored Capablanca’s games. When he played the match on telex during the Capablanca Memorial in Havana, he played on a table Capablanca had donated to New York.”

After landing in Havana in March, a ’57 Chevy taxi takes me from the airport past the Plaza de la Revolución, where murals of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos climb several stories across a pair of buildings. All the driver can talk about is the local taxi strike. Queues of stranded commuters are gathered all along the highway, and their ranks increase as we edge closer to the heart of the city.

We swing past the gates of Colón Cemetery, where Casablanca is buried, his grave marked with a white queen chess piece. Fernando brought me to the grave after our first handful of games. Vendors sold paper funnels of peanuts outside, and Fernando bought a half-dozen for our tour. “Peanuts everywhere,” he said, tossing a handful into his mouth. “Yet peanut butter has yet to be discovered on the island.” It was one of a thousand paradoxes he navigated every day. He worked at a hospital full-time but had struggled to support his family until he began renting out the spare room in his apartment. He hated the risks, but what choice was there? He introduced me to the chess term zugzwang, a situation in which you’re forced to move but every available move puts you in a worse position. “Resolver,” he said, shrugging.

Driving into town, it’s clear that all of Havana is dealing with change. For years, Cuba’s connection to the outside world via the internet has been miserably limited and terribly expensive. Now the government sells one-hour internet cards for 2 Cuban pesos, which are snatched up by entrepreneurial locals and scalped with a 50 percent markup. Cellphones were once rare; now they are as ubiquitous in Havana as any other major city. (When the Rolling Stones played the largest concert in Cuban history just after Obama left last year, what amazed me more than the estimated 500,000 people in attendance was how the audience experienced the event: behind a phalanx of iPhones. Just like everywhere else.) Wi-Fi locations all over the city are filled with clusters of young Cubans nodding off into the glow of their phones. Of the 30 friends I made who were around my age during my first trip to the island in 2000, only five of them remain in Cuba. The rest started new lives in Miami, Spain, Austria, Canada, and elsewhere. While pawns are the most vulnerable piece on the chessboard, they are also the only piece capable of transforming into something entirely new, provided they make the perilous journey across the board.

I drop off my things and catch a cab down to the Malecón, Havana’s famous boardwalk, where Fernando is waiting to join me at the Capablanca Chess Club (just down the hill from the Hotel Tryp Habana Libre, where the first Capablanca Memorial was played in 1962). When I climb out of the cab, a wave crashes over the seawall and splashes a bicycle taxi carrying two tourists in the backseat. I greet Fernando, who’s carrying a chessboard under his arm, and he tells me he’s arranged a meeting with José Antonio Hedman, one of the professional players who works with children at the club. “Do you know where the money came from for the first Capablanca Memorial tournament?” Fernando asks.

I shrug.

“Che Guevara raised the money. Later on, he regularly played against visiting grandmasters. Even Bobby Fischer. Che’s father took him to a tournament when he was a boy growing up in Buenos Aires, and he saw Capablanca playing. That’s where he first got addicted to chess and also where he first learned about the country where Capablanca came from. Che and the Cuban government invested huge amounts of money to support the game.”

Standing before the entrance of the club, it’s clear that those investments weren’t aimed at ostentatiousness. There’s a large row of pink-framed windows nestled into a cream-colored cement exterior, the paint chipped and peeling from the salty sea breeze. Next to the front door, “CLUB CAPABLANCA” rests above a plaque commemorating the centennial of Capablanca’s birth. The club itself has been in operation for almost a century.

Inside, the mint green walls are mostly bare, save for a schedule of lessons and events and a green-and-white magnetic chessboard hung behind an office desk. Aside from the two club managers’ desks pushed up against one wall and a row of tables emblazoned with eight chessboards on the other side of the room, the club is filled only with sunlight. Somehow the place feels a bit like an abandoned church. Inspecting the green-and-white squares on the wooden boards, I slide my index finger inside the grooves worn from excessive use.

Fernando and I sit opposite Hedman, a painted board between us. “Life in Cuba,” he explains, “is about solving challenging problems. The skills chess offers help us a great deal on and off the board.”

Chess is taught in nearly all Cuban elementary and high schools, and in 2003, universities began offering chess degrees. A year later, with 13,000 players taking on 500 chess masters, Cuba broke the world record for the largest simultaneous chess exhibition in history. In 2008, Cuban grandmaster Leinier Domínguez won the World Blitz Championship. While Domínguez is a long way from rivaling Capablanca’s accomplishments, he’s hovered around the top 20 of the world’s best chess players for some time.

This didn’t happen by accident. After Castro banned professional sports in 1962, huge resources were devoted to making Cuba a global powerhouse in baseball, boxing, and chess. The symbolic value of triumph in these fields during the Cold War paid huge dividends. Cuba went on to dominate Olympic boxing and international baseball, and, for an island of only 11 million people, Cuba has so far produced an astounding 43 chess grandmasters.

Hedman invites Fernando and me to an upcoming exhibition at the Meliá Cohiba Hotel. Some of the children Hedman has worked with at the club, he tells us, are eager to glimpse their chess heroes. Domínguez might even be in attendance.

When I spot Fernando’s taxi approaching the Meliá Cohiba the morning of the exhibition, the driver is frantically trying to dodge a patchwork of sea puddles. Fernando hops out and sniffs around the hotel for the exhibition, but nothing advertises it, so he asks the security guards inside for help. They suggest we ask the front desk. No luck there either. A different security guard approaches and advises us to try the Hotel Riviera next door. Nobody at the Riviera has any clue what we’re talking about, so we’re back to square one in the lobby of the Meliá Cohiba. “Cuba neo,” Fernando moans. Only in Cuba. Just then Hedman taps me on the shoulder.

“You made it,” he says, smiling. “There is good news and bad news I have for you. Domínguez will not be here this morning. However, one of our best gran maestros will be here, Lázaro Bruzón.”

A crowd of equal parts children and adults gathers around the restaurant next to the hotel entrance, and at 8:30 a.m., we’re let inside a surreal room furnished with jukeboxes, 1950s American convertibles, and aging Cessna planes. Dozens of tables surround a stage with a screen hanging over a main chess table—the centerpiece on display.

Hedman approaches with Bruzón, still boyish at 34, at his side. After shaking hands, Bruzón explains he learned chess from a neighbor when he was 7. By 9, he’d devoted his life to the game, and the Cuban government recognized a prodigy in its midst. At 18, he won the World Junior Chess Championship, but now, 16 years later, he explains that he is cutting back on international tournaments. He’s receding from a life perpetually in the orbit of chess, a confession that is accompanied by a mix of mournfulness and relief. “I am immensely proud to have represented my country around the world,” he tells me.

There’s an ease about Bruzón’s demeanor that leaves an impression on me. It’s a stark contrast to the lingering tension and friction felt by elite Cuban athletes in other sports. “Have any of the top Cuban chess players left the island?” I ask Fernando after Bruzón excuses himself.

“None that I know of,” he says. “Chess players who devote their lives to chess probably live much more comfortably here than they would in a different system.”

Which makes sense. I’ve interviewed some of Cuba’s finest boxers and baseball players. In many cases, they’ve rejected the vast fortunes that come with leaving the island and crossing 90 miles to compete in the U.S. While none openly regret their decision, they lead lives much like double-exposed photographs, always wondering how they would have fared if they had left. Over the last 10 years, Cuban baseball and boxing have been gutted by international poaching. But not chess. On top of having their needs looked after, chess players in Cuba are seen as something between an athlete and an artist. They might be more appreciated and respected here than anywhere else.

After turning the matter over, Fernando puts his hand on my shoulder. “We admire la lucha [“the struggle”] as much on the chessboard as we do in the boxing ring. Our lives here have always been a struggle, and approaching that struggle with the courage of a boxer or the cunning and intelligence of a chess player is something that commands our respect. The same rules apply in a boxing ring or on the chessboard or growing up in our crazy system: resolver. Many places around the world are confronted with the same thing. They just don’t have our sense of style.”

After the exhibition concludes, kids still hunched over chess tables, Fernando tucks his chessboard under his arm and suggests we go to Cojímar, 10 miles east of Havana, where he grew up and first learned to play. We catch a taxi on the Malecón and head toward the lighthouse. Just before we plunge into the shadowy-yellow glow inside the eastbound tunnel out of Havana, I watch as fishermen cast their lines toward Miami and a gigantic cruise ship enters the harbor.

When we emerge on the other side, very little civilization remains. We close in on a spooky unguarded tollbooth, beyond it only palm trees and giant street lights outstretched like a diver’s arms before takeoff. We pass a stagnant-looking stadium built for the Pan American Games 25 years ago, a paint-chipped mural of Che staring out from inside of what looks like the upside-down ribcage of Jonah’s whale. Soon after, Fernando taps the driver’s shoulder from the backseat and we walk the rest of the way into his village.

As we wind through the outskirts of Cojímar, the sea comes into view and we spot the long wooden pier that was once home to Ernest Hemingway’s boat, Pilar. Near the pier is the Torreón de Cojímar, a battered fort built in 1649 to protect Havana.

A bus of tourists pulls in to visit La Terraza, Hemingway’s favorite local restaurant, but Fernando’s spot is a laid-back rooftop restaurant on a nearby backstreet, perched above a Dalí-like set of stairs. When we arrive, a local boy is posted in front of the stairs, holding a varnished wooden object the size of a sunglasses case. He holds out the box and asks in English if I’ve ever seen a “romance box” before. I shake my head, and he smirks and seamlessly pulls it apart, holding out both halves of the box with his arms spread wide. He brings the pieces back together and effortlessly repeats the gesture once more. “I’ll give you 30 seconds with it,” he tells me. “If you can open the box, it’s yours to give to the one you love. If you cannot open it, then you must pay me 10 pesos to keep it.” He quickly opens and shuts the box again with a blurring sleight of hand. “See how easy it is?”

I glance over at Fernando, but he’s too busy staring at the boy to offer any counsel. So, gullibly yet determinedly, I play the sucker. “¡Vamos!” he says, staring at his watch. I feverishly work the thing over like a Rubik’s Cube until the boy hollers, “¡Tiempo! Diez pesos por favor.” I absentmindedly hand the box to Fernando and fish my pockets for the boy’s fee. When I fork it over, the boy is no longer paying attention to me. He’s staring at Fernando, who is calmly repeating the boy’s opening and closing demonstration.

“How?” I gasp.

“I had the same job here when I was his age,” Fernando says. “But”—and he suddenly switches over to Spanish—“when I saw a girl I loved at first sight, I asked her for something more if she couldn’t solve the romance box in 30 seconds.”

“What?” I ask.

“I asked her to go on a date with me. But first I wrote a secret message and put it inside the box. When she couldn’t open the box, we went on our first date and I gave her the box as a gift.”

“What did you write in the note?” the boy asks. His swagger has left him.

“I asked her to marry me.” He laughs and passes me the box, freeing up his hands to dig through his pockets for a black and a white chess piece. He holds them in his clenched fists and motions for me to tap one, but the boy interrupts.

“What happened to the girl?” he implores.

Fernando ignores the question and grunts for me to choose a fist. I do, and Fernando holds out a white queen in his palm.

“Did you ever see the girl again?” the boy asks deliriously.

“Of course I did. I saw her this morning, when I cooked breakfast for her and our daughter.” Fernando turns and winks at me. “Resolver.” 

Credits:  This article originally appeared in 2017 in Southwest: The Magazine.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Did Ralph Ellison Leave a 2d Classic?

William Grimes

In a pivotal scene, members of the congregation make a trip to the Capitol to warn Senator Sunraider that his life is in danger. After being turned away from his office by his secretary, the group goes to a visitor's gallery just in time to see a young man rise and shoot the Senator.

Theories abound to explain the inordinately long writing period for this second work of fiction. Mr. Ellison's friends say he was not struggling with writer's block, but there is no doubt the achievement of "Invisible Man" pitched his own expectations very high.

"As an artist I think he came to sense the magnitude of 'Invisible Man' as what Bellow called a victory," said Mr. Callahan. "That made him set his standards higher."

Mr. Ellison's friends also point out that the fire that destroyed his manuscript devastated the writer. It was five or six years before he could bring himself to reconstruct what had been lost. And when he did, his thinking about the work had changed.

By all accounts, the novel that slowly took shape after 1966 was quite different. "It changed, I know that," said Mr. Fox. "It became longer. The second version, I gather, is a much more ambitious book than the one destroyed in the fire."

In an interview in 1981, Mr. Ellison said: "The new book's form is a realism extended beyond realism. It's a crazy book, and I won't pretend to understand what it's about."

As a practical matter, the enormous success of "Invisible Man" made its author a public figure, as well as freeing him from the financial need to publish.

"Part of the problem was that his first novel received the National Book Award, and he then began receiving awards and degrees," said Robert J. O'Meally, a professor of English at Columbia University who has written two books on Mr. Ellison. "His standards were high already. And the pressure then was more than he could bear to equal what he had done before."

Mr. Ellison deeply admired Andre Malraux, who combined the roles of novelist, public intellectual and government official. He took great pride in serving on the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which established public broadcasting in the late 1960's, and he served on the committee that created the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

"All this gave him certain opportunity to be a public man and a citizen," said Mr. Callahan, "but some of those responsibilities he might have wished would pass away." Work on the Transitions

Ellison scholars often argue, in a somewhat aggrieved tone, that his two works of nonfiction would entitle him to a prominent place in American letters even if "Invisible Man" had never been written.

In recent years, however, Mr. Ellison seemed to be within striking distance of another complete novel. His working method was to construct vignettes or long set pieces, which he then wove together. In his introduction to the 30th-anniversary edition of "Invisible Man," he stated that it took seven years to write in large part because of the attention he lavished on the transitions binding the main sections of the work together. The same painstaking work, apparently, occupied his last days. Painstaking, but far from painful.

"I spoke with him on the phone on March 12, and he was as expansive and outgoing as could be," said Mr. Callahan. "He spoke of the day's work he had just done on the novel."

Apparently, Mr. Ellison liked what he saw. And for a man supposedly wrestling with the muse, he seemed to be laughing a lot. "Fanny would say she'd come upon him at work and he'd just be chuckling," said Mr. Callahan. "He was having a hell of a good time."

Credits:  This article was originally published in The New York Times in 1994.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Julio Cortazar Visits New York in the '70s.

Frank MacShane

JULIO CORTAZAR, the Argentine novelist, was in New York to consult his publisher about his forthcoming book. “It's called ‘Libro de Manuel’ in Spanish,” he explained in a conversation. “We had some trouble with the English title.

'Manuel's Book’ seemed a bit dull, so Gregory Rabassa, who is my translator and loves to play with words, suggested ‘Manuel's Manual.’ But that seemed rather a mouthful, so it's going to be called ‘A Manual for Manuel.’"

Asked whether it was in any way like his famous novel, 'Hopscotch,' he replied that it is also placed Paris and that the characters are Argentine. “But whereas in ‘Hopscotch’ I was mainly interested in the inner lives and relationships of the characters, in this new book I am concerned with the effect of public events on them. That's the difference between now and then. Inevitably we have become politicized. The novel is about a group'of young revolutionaries, and is full of kidnappings torture-- all the things we read about every day in the newspapers.

“Naturally I did not want to make it a political tract — it is, after all, a piece of fiction — so I had to try establish an equilibrium between the private lives the characters and public events. I have tried to deal with what happens in the novel with some humor and to use comedy. Also, I have actual documents — headlines and articles from French newspapers, from the Paris Herald‐Tribune, and from Argentine newspapers as well, for the book takes place in 1971, when Lanusse was President of Argentina and the use of torture for political reasons became a common practice. While I was writing the novel, I was myself reading these headlines and articles, so I had my characters read them well.”

Mr. Cortazar noted that it was important to separate political opinions and beliefs from fiction. “When I write a novel,” he said, “I am writing directly from inside, myself. I am trying to express what I see and what I feel about the world around me. That is why have tried to set up the equilibrium between humor and documentation in the new book. At the same time I am a political person. I have actively tried to carry out my belief in the future of socialism the world without belonging to a political party because I believe it is better for a writer to be independent. It is my duty as a man to be politically active, but I don't think you should allow this to influence your writing. Let me tell you a story to illustrate what I mean: On one of my trips to Cuba 10 years ago met some guerrieros. I didn't really meet them because the room was kept so dark I could only see their hands. But they told me that when they were in the jungles of Venezuela, when they were trying to recover from their exhaustion, they liked to read from my book, ‘Cronopios y Famas.’ They didn't read Lenin or Marx: they read these stories, which are mainly fantasies. I was very moved when they told me that it was the same with Che Guevara: he didn't carry ‘Das Kapital’ in his pocket. He had a copy of Neruda's ‘Canto General’ with him.

Mention of his short stories prompted Mr. Cortazar to comment on the difference between writing long and short fiction. “For me,” he said, “a novel is a long process or development, dealing with a number of subjects that evolve along the way. For instance, Manual for Manuel’ has a lot to do with sex in Latin America. I try to go into that subject as far as I can; machismo and with notions of male superiority. This on top of the other things the book is about. So, a novel is a rich experience, something that opens as many issues and lets them unfold. A short story is very different. I think of it as a kind of glass sphere in which you try to enclose a few perceptions, a few feelings. It must be complete within itself and brief enough to have a tight form. Sometimes when I am writing a novel I think of something that doesn't belong there but has a life of its own. So I stop and make a short story of it if I can. A short story is more like a poem than like novel.”

Speaking of the so‐called “boom”—the literary explosion from Latin America that some people contend is an artificial phenomenon created by publishers—Mr. Cortazar pointed out the irony that it should be known by an English word. “No, I don't think it's artificial at all,” he said. “Let me tell you that when my novel 'The Winners’ was first published in this country, I was accused of writing an imitation of Katherine Anne Porter's ‘Ship of Fools,’ but the reviewers didn't bother to notice that in Spanish the book came out two years before Miss Porter's novel. The point is we were thought to be imitators—either that, or we had to write books full of local color, with señoritas 
and gauchos and tangos. In Latin America it was the same. Twenty years ago, our readers were only interested in the latest Faulkner or Steinbeck or Mauriac. Latin American literature was considered to be utterly inferior.

“What happened then was that a group of writers ‐Miguel Angel Asturias, Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, myself and some others began to write novels that allowed Latin Americans to realize that within their own heritage there was material as rich as any in the world. It began to be recognized that we could write about all sorts of things without being accused of being imitators. We turned inward to try to discover the roots of our own being, and when we did that we ended literary colonialism in South America. Above all, we gained the confidence of our readers, and that is what the ‘boom’ is all about.”

On his return to Paris, Mr. Cortazar hopes to finish up a series of short pieces—some only a page long—which are about incidents, places, people. They number more than a hundred. He is also waiting for the translation into English of two books of short stories. One of these has only recently been published, but not in his native Argentina, because he refused to allow it to appear with two of the stories omitted for fear of censorship.

Asked whether he was part of the literary life of Paris, he answered: “No, I am not. Of course I know the French writers, but mainly through their books. I really don't like being with writers as much as with painters and musicians. I was a friend of Pablo Neruda's when he was ambassador to France, and I see other Latin American writers when they come through. But the intellectual life of Paris is too professional for me. There are always panel discussions and meetings, which I don't like. Anyhow, I don't think in abstract terms nor do I make generalizations: I see things and feel them. And music is very important to me.”

Credits:  This article was originally published under the title 'Visit from Julio Cortazar' in 1978 in The New York Times.  It has been edited slightly for the sake of clarity.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Hitting the Streets by Raymond Queneau – review

Nicholas Lezard

You have to love an Oulipian. These were, or are, the writers who, as Queneau himself put it, are rats who build the labyrinths they try to escape from. You know, writing entire novels without the letter E, or telling the same very banal story (about a young man in a silly hat getting jostled on the bus and then being seen in a park a couple of hours later; really, it is banal) in 99 different ways, many of them absurd (and very funny). That latter wheeze, Exercises in Style, was Queneau's; and he co-founded the movement – whose name is short for "Ouvroir de littérature potentielle", or "potential literature workshop" – when he asked a mathematician for help in composing his work Cent mille milliards de poèmes. This involved each line of 10 different sonnets being printed on its own strip of paper, so that one hundred million million poems, give or take a million or so, can be constructed by the reader.

No such japes in this volume of poems, though – just an enormous number of headaches for the translator. But it is fun for the reader. In one of his poems, just four lines long, Queneau sets a number of traps, punning on, to take one example, different meanings of "fils" (son, or wires, take your pick), and ends with the challenge: "allez me traduire ça en anglais!" Which Rachel Galvin, naturally enough, renders as "go translate that into French for me!"

It's the spirit you have to get into above all here, and Galvin knows it. As she points out in her excellent introduction, Queneau's most famous work (and the one that released him from half a century of financial anxieties), Zazie dans le métro, begins with the word "Doukipudonktan". Fancy a stab at that? She also coins, in an attempt to translate the portmanteau word "fientaisie", the fantastic word "whimsicrap", which I have a feeling is going to come in very handy for us all.

So it is as well that this book comes with the French, too. Queneau was one of those writers who knew pretty much everything there was to know about literature, but he also loved word games, and the language of the streets. These combined to produce this book, which contains about 150 poems, almost every one of which is a love letter to Paris. Though maybe "love letter" isn't the right phrase to describe "Un beau siècle" ("One Fine century"), which goes "Conneries des années 1900 / Connerie de la belle époque" ("stupidity of the 1900s..." etc) all the way through to the year 2000, even though the book itself dates from 1967. ("Conneries" is rather stronger than "stupidity", but we don't have a word for it.)

But the thing I most want to impress upon you is that just about every single one of these poems is a delight – the kind you want to show to people. There is a very impish, almost mischievous sense of humour at work here; you get the impression that Queneau would have been a delight to meet and get to know. I'm thinking of "There was a Waterloo Passage / it's been demolished / it's just that we're patriots in Paris", or "Advice for Tourists", which lists, as attractions near the Boulevard Sébastopol, the Acropolis, Whitechapel, the Kremlin, the Pentagon … I could go on and on.)

Galvin quotes another Oulipian as saying "since Baudelaire, poetry has explicitly loved the big city", and Hitting the Streets is an extension of that project – especially as incarnated by the work of Apollinaire, who also made extremely witty and readable poetry out of avant-garde forms. Paris seems particularly suited to this kind of project; and Queneau is particularly good at it. The city becomes anthropomorphised, or at least given a vibrant and inimitable character; even its flies are, if that is the word, celebrated ("The flies of today / are no longer the flies of yore / they are less cheerful"). You might balk at the idea of paying nearly thirteen quid for 197 pages of poems, and French poems at that, but I promise you you'll love this. Especially if you love Paris.

(This article was amended on 5 August 2013 to correct misspellings in "Cent mille milliards de poèmes" and "Doukipudonktan.")

Credits:  This article appeared in 2013 in the US edition of The Guardian.

Raduan Nassar became a Brazilian sensation with his first novel - now published in English, the world will come knocking

by Stefan Tobler This year [2016], as the eyes of the world turn to Brazil – lapping up its food, music, natural beauty and, of cou...