Tag Archives: Uruguay

Sunday Ramblings: Do I need a focus?


I have arrived at a point again where I am trying to read too many books at the same time. And it causes stress. Every time I sit down I wonder which one I should get into. I worry about reading rates and when I will manage to finish another book so I can blog about (as if anybody cares about that really). Several people read my blog but I am sure no one waits impatiently for the next post.

Whenever this happens, I have to give myself a good kick in the butt and remind myself why I read. Because (1) I love getting into a good story, (2) it’s a way to learn something, (3) it’s a great escape from my day-to-day work life, (4) it’s an exposure to another world, another mind, another way to use language. And in that context, there should be no concern about speed of execution; it should be all about enjoying those moments.

As displayed at the moment on the blog: I am reading Pérez-Reverte’s El tango de la guardia vieja, a good story with some mystery to it. It has what I could describe as a “X” shape construction. It tells a story about two people, a man and a woman, describing in parallel for a while the past life and present predicament of that man. It eventually dips into the past of the woman as well, after they meet again in the present time and start revisiting old times together. So you have the four segments of the “X”, man-woman-present-past, eventually meeting in the middle, where presumably all makes sense (I still have to get to that point) and we can progress to the future, if a (common) future is possible. Nothing is so certain… Both protagonists are rascals of a sort, one with money and one without (I will let you guess which is which), which obviously provides them with different resources and choices in life.

So I am about one third of the way through this fairy large novel, which I suspect is about a 15-hour read. I have also gotten about 20% into the 7-hour long Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, the 2014 winner of the Giller Prize. I have read some of the short list and at least one long listed book, so here we are with the winner. So far, I failed to be entranced by the book and its protagonist, a somewhat self-centered Russian scientist who invented the theremin, this electronic musical instrument that is used for the other-worldly Star Trek theme. This one is on my Kobo, so I have mostly been reading it in public transportation.

It’s been a slow start on Guillaume et Nathalie.

The event of the week is that the new book of poetry by Rafael Courtoisie (Parranda) that I ordered through the Libreria de las Americas in Montreal has finally arrived after a four-month wait. I had called for an update about 2 weeks ago and they told me it was arriving that week, but they did not call me back until Wednesday of this week to tell I would pick up. A big order to unpack perhaps? It is a tiny bookstore with a small staff and not very long opening hours. I dropped by yesterday to get my book, and bought a couple more since I was there (one has to encourage small niche businesses, right?).

Now, look as I may, I cannot find a publication date on Parranda. The front does say that is the winner of the 14th Premio Casa de América de Poesía Americana, but the copyright page does not explicitly say it was published in 2014, save for the legal deposit number including the number 2014. That is not the way it is usually done with other books, so I was puzzled.

So Parranda won a poetry prize for poets from the Americas which is handed out at the Case de América in Madrid. It is published in Spain by what seems to be a fairly small publisher and one whose books are difficult to order in Canada. Rafael Courtoisie is an Uruguayan writer who was recently named to the Academy of Letters of his country and has had so far an interesting career both a writer and teacher, and more to come I hope. I have had an interesting time exploring his work so far and I am in the process of formulating a study course on Uruguayan literature (which I hope will be a good preparation for a vacation in Uruguay in 2-3 years from now).

The other course of study I am pursuing is the short Coursera offering on Australian literature, a six-week exploration of Australian literature fundamentals with a professor from the University of Western Australia. So far pretty interesting, although I have already fallen being and am trying to catch up. The first week was about varying perceptions of land and space from current and early writers, as well as from aboriginal culture. The second week focuses on the original of Australia as a penal colony and how this theme as been used in literature. The main part of the course are the video lectures and little actual reading (short extracts only) which makes it a good introduction but certainly invites one to more in depth reading. In terms of workload, it is much less daunting than the 2 previous lit courses I did on Coursera which required reading a full-size novel each week (or the equivalent in smaller works).

So, my head is all over the place… Oh well, back to reading (and cooking and housework, as it is Sunday and there are other demands on my time as well).

And here we go for the humorous link:

Sheldon (The Big Bang Theory) playing the Star Trek theme on the theremin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YYABE0R3uA

Rafael Courtoisie, Santo Remedio


The book starts with this sentence: “I just killed my mother.” It goes on to describe where the body lies, its position, how son Pablo Green opens the window to air the room. He then has to close it because it is raining and the floor is getting wet.

Pabro goes for a walk and is pursued for a walk and his pursued by rottweilers. He sprains his ankle and a woman who opens her door to him supposedly to help him locks him up in her basement. He manages to escape… And returns home, behaving as if he had not kills his mother and she was still alive. He reaches his mother’s door, rings the bell, waits, calls out to her, eventually finds his own key to unlock the door.

Pablo is a troubled man. He may mean well, wishing to avoid his mother any further suffering, but the choice that he makes sets off a cascade of events that lead to a series of deaths. The fortune-teller.  The annoying neighbor who plays the trumpet. The janitor. His mother’s oncologist.

His mother’s spirit, talking to him through a medium, makes suggestions on how to dispose of some of the bodies.

Pablo sleeps with the janitor’s wife.

Pablo gets the oncologist’s daughter pregnant.

They move to Switzerland and get their happy ending.

This book is an ode to absurdity, to the meaninglessness of causes and consequences, to the power of the idiot to the change the course of so many people’s lives.


Courtoisie, Rafael. Santo Remedio. Lengua de trapo, Madrid, 2006.

Other things






Rafael Courtoisie, Caras extrañas


This novel could be understood as a manifest against politically-motivated violence, of the type perpetrated in the context of military coups and dictatorships in South America, although it could apply to similar situations in any other part of the world.

The story opens with a guerilla group taking control of an industrial suburb near the fictitious capital city of Montenegro (a barely disguised Montevideo). The country where the event occurs is not named but can easily be understood to be Uruguay. A number of events follow, shoot outs between the authorities and the subversives, but we also find out about the lives of a number of people who may or may not be affected by the events. Those who are arrested or killed by the authorities often had nothing to do with the coup. Both sides rely on disinformation to maintain the upper hand. Many violent acts are perpetrated by both sides.

En 1969 la subversión copó por unas pocas horas la ciudad de Salvo, próxima a la capital del país, Montenegro.

Este hecho, al parecer de carácter menos que extraordinario, es, sin embargo, fundamental, pues está en el origen de una serie infinita de consecuencias, algunas banales, pero otras que afectan a la esencia.

The book continues with an exploration of the chain of events resulting from the takeover of the city of Salvo by the subversives.

Chapter  XVII is quite a striking departure from the story that was previously told, in its reliance on an elaborate metaphor. There the author starts by comparing the government to a clown, who becomes a sad clown because of his incapacity to stop the rebellion. He also compares the rebels to cockroaches who make fun of the clown and are too swift to be caught or neutralized with insecticides. Therefore there is a stalemate. The form in which this short two-page chapter is written is very similar to the form used for most poems written in prose in Poesía y caracol.

Most of the book is narrated by a third-person narrator, not quite omniscient as there does not seem to be complete awareness of the intentions of the characters or the consequences of their actions. He is more like a distant observer who only gets a fragmented view of events. There is a transition in Chapter XXVI to a first-person narrator who was ten years old in 1969. He comments that growing up with terror, repression and mortal fear does have consequences.

Most characters seem somewhat disembodied. We see them take action and interact with others, but we are told very little about who they are, how they feel, what they intend to do. This results in the story being told in a very detached way… almost as if someone was trying to understand the situation while attempting to remain emotionally detached from it.

The story is told in a very fragmented way and, because of this, seems to have little “density”. Montoya Juàrez describes the form as similar to video clips.

This creates a very different effect from stories about South American military dictatorships written in the testimonio genre. “Testimonio” in Spanish can be translated as “testimonial narrative” (see Beverley) and are often written in the first person, offering an eyewitness account of a situation or series of event. Therefore, they reflect the immediacy of lived experience and the intimacy of personal involvement in the events.  One book of this genre that made a very strong impression on me is Strejilevich’s Una sola muerte numerosa, a testimonial narrative of horrendous experiences at the end of the military authorities in the 70s dictatorship in Argentina. This particular book relies both on the author’s experience as well as interviews with others. At the time, I read this I was also drawn to read Nunca màs, a report on the atrocities of those years. Little did I know that Uruguay also went through similar events. I had at least one friend whose family emigrated from Uruguay in those years, but somehow I never asked why. There is certainly much more to find out about it than I have so far.

As important as eyewitness accounts may be, as well as investigations, historical research, and official reports, works of fiction also provide an important means to make sense of reality, of exploring different faces of it. With Caras extrañas, what we see at work are the powerful tools of irony and black humor (as says Montoya Juàrez) to shed light on the absurdities of the situation and the incomprehensible drive of some human beings to inflict so much pain and suffering on others.

Here is a sample:



Courtoisie, Rafael. Caras extrañas. Lengua de trapo, 2001.

Strejilevich, Nora. Una sola muerte numerosa. Alción Editora, Cordóba, Argentina, 2006.

Beverley, John. Testimonio: On The Politics of Truth. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN: 2004.

Montoya Juárez, Jesús. “Miradas audiovisuales en la narrativa uruguaya de los 90: Rafael Courtoisie”, Estudios Románicos, Volumne 16-17, 2007-2008, pp. 737-745. (http://digitum.um.es/xmlui/handle/10201/9947)


Rafael Courtoisie, Poesía y caracol (Poésie et escargot)


J’ai rencontré brièvement Rafael Courtoisie au Festival international de poésie de Trois-Rivières, sans trop savoir à qui j’avais à faire. J’avais acheté un de ses recueils de poésie parce que c’était en espagnol (il  y avait quelques auteurs dont les recueils étaient en vente au kiosque du festival). J’avais aimé la couverture de carton sobre du recueil, le titre, les poèmes pour la plupart en prose.

Rafael Courtoisie est un poète, romancier et professeur qui a été nommé l’an dernier à l’Académie des lettres de l’Uruguay.

Poesía y caracol a beaucoup des éléments que j’ai le plus aimés quand j’étudiais la littérature d’expression espagnole: des éléments de mystère et de magie, l’ironie d’un style semblable à Cortázar, le rocambolesque de Borges.  On y rencontre une comparaison de la poésie à un escargot, donc la coquille est chargée de mystère. On y explore aussi le mystère des perles noires et la nécessité de la présence des brebis noires, qui représente la rébellion contre les règles:

Les brebis noires sont l’exception. Les blanches sont la règle.

Dans un troupeau de brebis noires l’exception, la rebelle, l’anarchiste et la désobéissante est la brebis blanche. Mais les troupeaux de brebis noires sont plutôt rares.

Défendre l’existence des brebis noires et des perles imparfaites est un devoir moral, un impératif suprême de la conscience.

(p. 14, traduction libre)

Le poète explore les opposés, les contraires, les contradictions et les ironies qui l’entourent. Il discute de la nature des portes et des clés, des différences entre les hommes maigres, forts, gros ou lents. Et on n’est pas seulement dans la beauté et l’évanescence, on explore aussi la nature du vice.

Et pendant ce temps, les escargots dorment dans les jardins…


Courtoisie, Rafael. Poesía y caracol. Editorial Fundación BBVA y Sibila, Sevilla, 2008.