Saturday, May 12, 2012


Dir: Marco Kreuzpaintner, 2007.

An earnest, well-made film that essentially is a documentary on the sex-trafficking of children from Mexico to the USA.  Many believable, and of course, ghastly sequences.

But in the end the narrative vehicle the film uses -- the jaded cop (Kevin Kline) who ends up helping a Mexican teen searching for his kidnapped sister -- seems cliche'd.  And the "happy" ending dodges the tough questions.  Can rescuing one girl be justified if it imperils an entire anti-smuggling operation?   And what are the real constraints - political, economic, and social -- under which these operations have to work?

May 2012

The Izu Dancer

Yasunari Kawabata, 1925.

I have never read Kawabata and thought I would pick this up in advance of a trip to Japan.  I read the title story and was captivated.  This one story is in fact what established his reputation and probably paved his way for the Nobel.

But the translation, by Edward Seidensticker, felt clunky.  So I got another translation, this time just of Kawabata's stories, and the translation by J. Holman felt a bit better, but still halting and rickety.  I can't tell if its just these translations of in fact that was the style Kawabata used.

There is one critical sentence, in particular, that both translators seem to have butchered.  In the story, the young narrator, drawn to a very young dancing girl, accompanies her and her family for several days through the Izu peninsula as they walk from inn to inn, performing at night for the guests.  He is initially attracted by her beauty, and is very conscious of their class differences, yet wins their trust and friendship.  After several days he comes to a key realization:

"I came to see that the life of the traveling performer was not the forbidding one I had imagined.  Rather it was easy-going, relaxed, carrying with it the scent of meadows and mountains." (Seidensticker).


"I realized that their sense of the road was not so hardened as I had first supposed.  Rather, it was more of a lighthearted attitude that had not lost the scent of the fields." (Holman).

The first version seems obviously better to me, but it is indeed a touch more lyrical and simple -- and sadly I have no idea whether that was the effect intended, or what it feels like in Japanese.

That apart, the title story continues in a vein that is superficially detached but touching, until the end, when the encounter has the effect of nudging the young narrator closer to self-forgiveness and true adulthood.  It reminded me of "Teesri Kasam" (The Third Vow) by Phaneeshwar Nath Renu.

I also liked "Diary of My Sixteenth Year", an experiment in memory and narrative but also a semi-autobiographical narrative of a boy dealing with the death of his beloved grandfather.  In some sense it sets the stage for "The Izu Dancer".

I didn't really care for the other stories, particularly the short-short (or "palm") stories for which Kawabata was famous.  Far too self-consciously modern, somewhat pretentious in their jarring juxtapositions and odd narrative techniques, and ultimately not interesting.

Apr 2012

The Death of Artemio Cruz

Carlos Fuentes, 1962.

My edition of the book was a hardcover from the local public library, and the inside dust jacket blurb started with: "This is a novel in the grand style..".

And indeed it is, covering the themes of war, corruption, love and loss through the lens of modern Mexican history.

It has the flavor of something like the Russian novels: Doctor Zhivago (although not as classical or lyrical), or War and Peace (although not as long :0 ).  And even a bit of Hemingway.  In that sense it feels dated -- on the other hand, a novel like this had to be written for Mexico.

The narrative consists of the disjointed, scrambled reminiscences of the title character on his deathbed.  He is obviously a fabulously wealthy, powerful, corrupt man.  But he is also wonderfully truthful and clear-eyed, and superbly contemptuous of his scheming wife and daughter.  Over the course of the novel we piece together his amazing story, from a soldier in a rag-tag army, through desertion, betrayal, blackmail, and repression to loveless old age.  Fuentes does a masterful job in presenting the narrator in shades of gray, as repulsive and frightening, yet sympathetic and a man worthy of respect in some fashion.

There were a few sections which were jarring -- where modernism and Hemingway/Mailer reared their ugly heads anachronistically in the middle of the "grand style".  For example, an entire section where every third word is "fuck" or one of its derivatives.

Toward the end, though, I tired of the story.  The trajectory was clear, and the constant jumps in time were wearying.  Less would have been a lot more.

Apr 2012