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The Gods of Tango. A novel by Carolina De Robertis

The Gods of Tango, by Carolina De Robertis.

During the last 25 years, Argentine tango has gone through a worldwide renaissance of interest. You can now dance tango in almost every major city on all continents. When you dance, the accompanying music comes from a very long tradition of respect for the past that is nonetheless enriched by constant innovation. A few tango musicians — Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzolla, most notably — have passed into the pantheon of world renown, as have a few of the dancers, like Juan Carlos Copes, María Nieves and Carlos Gavito.

Photo: Gabriela Padhila

Photo: Gabriela Pailha

Carolina De Robertis is a novelist living in the United States and writing primarily in English. She is of Uruguayan roots, however, and has written provocatively and deeply about characters whose entire consciousness derives from the land, the traditions and the politics of Uruguay and Argentina. Her novel Perla is for me one of the most perceptive — and startling — accounts of the results of the terrible military governments that destroyed so many lives in Argentina during the 1970s and 80s.

De Robertis’s new novel is The Gods of Tango, published by Knopf. In 1913, 17-year-old Leda arrives by ship in Buenos Aires, from Italy, ostensibly to be greeted by her new husband Dante. Once on shore, she learns that Dante has recently been killed in a street battle between syndicalists and the police. With only the clothes on her back and a single trunk containing her things, a little money, and the violin that her cherished father gave her after having been given it by his father, Leda moves into a conventillo, named La Rete, in the poor wharf-side neighborhood of La Boca. Conventillos basically were tenements, some set up by the Argentine government, others privately run, to house the many thousands of immigrants pouring into Buenos Aires during the first years of the twentieth century. The conditions were uniformly terrible, with many people crowded into warrens of single rooms. The conventillo would often have a central patio with a source of water for cooking and washing, which would be the gathering place for the tenants. These sprawling edifices housed people from all over the world, and must have been a polyglot confusion of languages, cultures, manners of dress and, most principally for Leda’s purposes, music.

She hears her first tango in La Rete, and is immediately smitten by it. She has never even imagined such rhythmic intensity before, or such soulful intent and passion, in any of the music she has ever heard. She can play her father’s violin (although at first her efforts are insubstantial), and she determines to master the tango.

There is, however, a problem.

Tango in 1913 Buenos Aires was the domain of men, and men alone. The only women involved were those who worked in the many boliche cafes and bordellos of Buenos Aires, and the duties of those women had little to do with music. The very idea of a woman playing tango was ridiculous to the men. Women were incapable of doing so, it was thought. There was no place for them on the street corner or in the café. The first requirement for any tango musician was that he be a man.

Leda comes to understand this quickly. Despite her very conservative Catholic upbringing in Italy, her complete isolation in Buenos Aires, her worries about what her family would say and the considerable physical danger that could lay waiting for her, she decides upon a change. Wrapping her breasts to diminish their presence, getting her hair cut in the style of a man, and dressing in her deceased husband’s clothes, Leda leaves the conventillo and takes to the Buenos Aires streets, now calling herself Dante, after her husband. She does so with violin in hand.

Leda remains so disguised for the rest of the novel, and she becomes remarkably well known as a musician. Working at first in the poorest of little boliches, she hones her talent until she becomes one of the best tango violinists on the Buenos Aires scene. But she does so as a man, and the disguise — and what it teaches her about the privileges that men enjoy that are forbidden to women — becomes the very vehicle for her rise to tango eminence.

Women are fascinated by this strange fellow Dante, and during her first years as a man, Dante becomes involved with a few of them. Suddenly, a new kind of heart is opened in her, and she finds avenues to affection with those women that surely, she thinks, must be sinful. But she cannot draw away from such affection because it also leads Dante to deep, compelling love. The way De Robertis presents the confusions that arise, for Dante and for her lovers, is one of the great innovations of this novel. De Robertis writes with considerable passion and beauty about the kinds of love that Dante finds and, of course, the kinds of sex that she finds. This novel contains some of the loveliest and most riveting writing about sensuality that I’ve ever encountered.

Dante’s efforts to keep her secret are threatened numerous times through the book, and her close calls with possible discovery are all memorable.

For anyone who cares about tango, this novel is a fine addition to the history of that soulful music in its Rio de La Plata birthplace. It is also a sensuous, thoughtful and beautifully rendered look at the complications that can arise — and the solutions that can be found — when a woman is told that she cannot do something upon which her heart insists.

Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published on May 1. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.

The New Ireland

c3805868a23ff33db810a282a03d323fI had a conversation last year in Finnegan’s of Dalkey–a phenomenal Dublin pub where novelist Maeve Binchy used to drink, and Bono now does drink–with an Irish attorney acquaintance. He had read my book of stories Little Bridget and The Flames of Hell, all of which deal in some way with the Irish in contemporary San Francisco, where I live.

San Francisco’s Irish community was, and still is, a major element in the culture of the city. As in so many other U.S. cities, the Irish came here in droves in the 19th century. But the diaspora has come upon us once again in the few years since the Celtic Tiger stumbled so badly. A victim of the same muscle-flexing hubris and financial thoughtlessness that almost brought the United States to its knees in 2008, Ireland is only just now beginning to recover. In the intervening seven years, there has been a noticeable increase of young Irish living and working in San Francisco, people in their early to mid-twenties.

My attorney friend enjoyed the stories I had written. He was surprised by the accuracy of my dialog when spoken by an Irish character, given that I had indeed never lived in Ireland. I explained that my knowledge of those conversational idiosyncrasies came from two sources: the kitchens of my mother and her mother (where I had spent so much time as a child listening to them talking and laughing, with their female relatives, at almost everything being said) and the University of California at Berkeley.

The women in those kitchens spoke in ways that seemed simply American to me, always with mid-west Chicago accents. I thought that the way my mother and grandmother told stories was how stories got told in every kitchen in the United States. What I did not realize was that, although their accents were in no way Irish, the idiomatic expressions those women often used were unique to the Irish. That revelation came to me when, as a student at Berkeley, I began reading Brendan Behan, Edna O’Brien, James Joyce, Frank O’Connor and all the others. Those writers worked in a kind of English dialect that I recognized from my mother. The turns of phrase, the wandering humor and laugh-inducing self-deprecation that had come into my own manner of speaking had originally come, I realized, from Dublin and its surround, from Cork City and Galway, where my great grandparents had lived.

But my attorney friend found fault with some of the stories I told in my book. “You’re writing about Irish sentiments from the 1950s or 60s, Terry. But not now.” He shook his head, his eyes softly observing the Finnegan’s pint before him. “No, not now, boy-o.”

Because of the duplicitous malfeasance of so many priests in Ireland–those most particularly who sexually attack children, and those who protect the attackers–the Catholic Church has lost its footing in that country. What was, until very recently, the single most repressed Catholic society in western Europe is now thoroughly revising its opinion of the Church. The most recent, and most stunning, example of that revisionism is the vote last month in the Republic of Ireland to legalize same-sex marriage. It is the first country whose entire populace has been asked to vote on the notion, and sixty-two percent of them said “yes”.

Ireland, of all places!

When I was writing my book ten years ago, I would no more have predicted such a vote than I would have claimed to be an English aristocrat. So my attorney acquaintance was right. Ireland is not the Ireland we once knew. But I was writing about a community of people who had arrived in San Francisco in the mid-twentieth century, and I now realize that that was an eon ago. The stories are terrific, believe me, but the Irish in Ireland have changed profoundly.

I am more or less devotedly heterosexual. But this same-sex marriage is a grand thing, and God save the Irish for having voted it in.

Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published on May 1.

Irvin D. Yalom: A Conversation

Photo: Reid Yalom

Photo: Reid Yalom

Irvin D. Yalom is as well known a writer of fiction as he is of non-fiction. His novels include the famous When Nietzsche Wept (a tour de force rendering of the relationship between Freud’s mentor, the renowned Dr, Joseph Breuer, and the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche), The Schopenhauer Cure and the most recent, 2012’s The Spinoza Problem.

He is also the inventor of a new non-fiction form, in which the psychiatrist Dr. Yalom describes conversations he has had with some of his most challenging patients. One such is his new book, Creatures of A Day, and Other Tales of Psychotherapy, which was published this year by Basic Books. The best known of Dr. Yalom’s non-fiction books is Love’s Executioner, which, as well as possessing one of the most compelling titles ever, contains the equally appealing passage from which the title is taken:

I do not like to work with patients who are in love. Perhaps it is because of envy — I, too, crave enchantment. Perhaps it is because love and psychotherapy are fundamentally incompatible. The good therapist fights darkness and seeks illumination, while romantic love is sustained by mystery and crumbles upon inspection. I hate to be love’s executioner.

I spoke with Yalom recently, interested in why he writes both fiction and non-fiction. I wanted to ask him which of these forms he prefers, and what does each form require of him that the other does not.

IY: I have a lot of blurring between fiction and non-fiction in so many of my works. For example, my first novel, When Nietzsche Wept, has a great deal of non-fiction in it. I didn’t create many characters at all. Almost all of them are historical characters that actually existed. Now, I consider that almost like having written fiction with training wheels. Everything, historically, was already there.

But the next novel, Lying On The Couch was entirely made up, and I felt then that, really, I was jumping off into fiction. I’m reading that novel now again, though, for a memoir that I’m writing, and I’m amazed by how much non-fiction there actually is in it. A lot of instances from my past life that I attribute to the characters. Many things from my own past are in there. Even some of the characters’ names… I changed them around, of course, but some of them are very similar to the names of people I actually have known.

Something like that takes place in my non-fiction stories, too… the blurring, I mean. Those stories all have fiction in them. First of all, I have to change almost all the details of a physical, factual nature in the story, in order to protect the identity of the patient. I’ve changed men into women. I’ve made tremendous alterations in the characters. In essence, though, the main character remains as he or she really is, and I will have changed certain features of their appearance or personality.

Incidentally, despite all this, I ask each of the people, on whom patient conversations have been based in a particular story, to read my final story. All of them have approved. But here’s something about those stories. One of my most read books is actually a textbook titled Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. The individual stories in that book, of patients in group therapy, are true. I really was trying to find my wings as a writer at that time, and I am certain — I have no question in my mind at all — that the reason that book is so successful is that it contains those stories, which I bootlegged into the book. Legions of students have told me that what they really like are the stories. They can put up with a lot of dry theory (Yalom grins.) if they know that another story is coming around the bend in a few minutes.

TC: What impact has your being so well known as a writer had on your practice as a psychiatrist?

IY: I’d love to write about that some time. Now, literally every patient I see has come to me because of something I’ve written, and that does have a significant impact upon the course of the therapy. It makes me into a bit of a larger-than-life figure for the people I see, and maybe potentially it even gives me more power to do good, as long as ultimately I can get past their need to see me as a special sort of figure. I don’t want to be idealized by a patient because of what I’ve written.

TC: Is writing fiction more, or less, difficult for you to write than non-fiction?

IY: I enjoy writing fiction more. I have had great experiences… adventures! When I’ve been writing a novel. And now, my inclination is to continue writing only fiction. You know, I’m a compulsive reader of fiction. I fell in love with novels when I was a teenager. My wife Marilyn and I… our initial friendship began because we are both readers. I’ve gone to sleep almost every night of my life after having read in a novel for 30 or 40 minutes. I’m a great reader of fiction, and much less so of non-fiction.

TC: Would you consider writing fiction that does not have a basis in psychiatry? Would you go farther afield?

IY: I can imagine doing that, but even then, my work would be categorized by its looking at internal issues, by how people think, by what consciousness is like. I don’t think I could write a mindless detective story.

In a new afterword for the 2012 re-release of Love’s Executioner, Yalom writes,

“I had always wanted to be a storyteller. As long as I can remember, I’ve been a voracious reader and somewhere in early adolescence I began yearning to be a real writer. That desire must have been percolating on the back burner as I pursued my academic career, for as I began writing these ten stories [for Love’s Executioner] I sensed I was on the way to finding myself.”

As fictional elements pervade his non-fiction, and as actual facts determine much of the action of his fiction, Yalom’s devotion to both is clearly evident, and functions on equal terms, the one with the other.

Terence Clarke’s latest novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published earlier this year. He is director of publishing at Astor & Lenox.This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.

Alan Rinzler, On Publishing Past, Present and Future

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When you are reading the Acknowledgments page of a newly purchased book, and you come across effusive thanks from the writer to his/her editor, you can reasonably ask, “Just what does an editor do?” Is such a person merely a handy helpmate who corrects grammatical errors? Is the editor the person who keeps the writer’s creative rampages in check, so that eventually an actual book with a beginning, a middle and an end will arrive at the book store (or, in these times, on your iPad)? Is the editor a soul mate to the writer, without whom the poor sot may never finish the sanity-threatening project on which he/she has embarked?

All of these will do, and many others. If you are a writer yourself, you know the intellectual and emotional intimacy that can result between you and your editor. It can be a sanguine conversation or a grittily difficult one, and every shade of talk in between. A very good primer on what the relationship can be like is A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. Among others, Perkins was the editor for much of the work of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.

Alan Rinzler

Alan Rinzler

There are few editors today who can claim to have edited such a list of major writers (either in terms of the quality or of the sales of their books). But one who can is Alan Rinzler. Having edited several of the books by Hunter S. Thompson, Clive Cussler, Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins and many, many others (including – full disclosure – two of mine) Rinzler occupies an almost unique place in contemporary publishing.

And he has much to say about the current state of that publishing.

For one, things look very good indeed, for a very real reason. “I don’t think people will ever stop writing or reading,” Rinzler says. “Human beings are hardwired to tell stories, compelled to write them…and to read stories for pleasure, information, inspiration – all the vital knowledge that we need to survive.” Every editor knows that the essential quality needed for a successful book is that it be written well. It’s the writer’s most important task, and has always been. What is new in successful books these days is the way they get published and sold, and Rinzler is very upbeat about current and future prospects in that realm, too.

“I was lucky to start out in publishing in the early 1960s when youth culture was a very important factor in book acquisition, production and marketing. Since I was young myself, I was able to make a connection with what was happening and that actually sold books.”

Rinzler’s rise was meteoric, starting with the mentorship from the legendary Robert Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster.

“After S&S, I went to Macmillan, and then Holt, which was owned by CBS at the time. So right away I had the kinds of resources that allowed me to sign up and develop books for the so-called youth market. A book about Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in their folk-music phase. A book on civil rights called The Movement, because I had been a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. And most importantly the first book written by a street kid growing up in Harlem, Manchild in the Promised Land ,which turned out to be a big NY Times best-seller.”

This youthful rise also included Rinzler’s editing and publishing Custer Died for Your Sins by Lakota Sioux Native American Vine Deloria Jr, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of The American West by Dee Brown. Published in 1970, it remains the best-selling book that Rinzler has ever worked on, and has been translated into more than 20 languages. It is still in print.

“Meanwhile, I had always loved rock ‘n roll as well. I had done a book on Woodstock by the rock ‘n roll photographer Baron Wolman, who told his friend Jann Wenner about me. Jann was in the process of founding a little newsprint four-fold publication in San Francisco named Rolling Stone, and we met.”

Agreeing to come on board, Rinzler moved his family from New York City to the west coast, and Rolling Stone became world famous. “Jann and I both wanted to start a book division, which we did, and I was in charge.” The publishing arm was called Straight Arrow Books. “Ultimately we published about 50 titles, most of which are still in print.” Among the most iconic titles published by Straight Arrow are Hunter S. Thompson’s legendary Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, as well as Kerouac, the first biography of Jack Kerouac by Ann Charters.

When Wenner decided to move Rolling Stone’s operations to New York City, Rinzler demurred, having decided that the San Francisco Bay Area was where he and his young family wanted to stay. He went to work for Barney Rosset at Grove Press and Evergreen Review. “Rosset was another great American publisher,” Rinzler says, “who paved the way for a lot of things that were actually, in those days, against the law to publish, like Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.”

Rinzler has continued on from there, to edit books for innumerable writers. He was for some years the west coast editor for Bantam Books, for whom he edited work by Tom Robbins, Jerzy Kosinski and Shirley MacLaine, among others, and until recently, Rinzler was an executive editor for Jossey Bass, the west coast imprint of John Wiley & Sons in San Francisco.

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Much has changed in the way that writing gets published…and read. Two things, however, remain unchanged: the creative talent of the writer and the intellectual curiosity of the reader.

“The book business,” Alan Rinzler says, “ has always only been marginally profitable.

“Even in the halcyon days of publishing, when I was fresh out of college, when Richard Simon was in one office and Max Schuster in another…when Alfred Knopf was down the street and Bennett Cerf was running Random House, most of the books being published by those titanic icons lost money.”

A business model, if there was one, was based on “the publisher’s passion,” Rinzler says.

“In those days, an editor would acquire a book because he loved it. He believed in it. But only a few books made enough to compensate for all those that failed. It was the old 20/80 rule.”

Book publishing has forever been an industry with very slim margins. “A profit of 5 to 6 percent meant that you were doing well,” Rinzler points out. This was largely due to the up-front expenses that traditional book publishing incurred: typesetting, and then printing and binding a book in long press runs; warehousing the books and having to distribute them to innumerable book stores around the country; marketing and publicity. All these caused out-of-pocket expenses that were incurred before a single book was ever sold. And then, as the unruly frosting on the cake, unsold books could be returned by the stores to the publishers for refunds…further expenses.

“Of course, this in no way affected the impact of the publishing industry on the general scene,” Rinzler says. “It had a very high visibility because it influenced ideas and social change. It reflected what was happening in politics, the arts and the culture.”

When the first shopping mall store chains (B. Dalton, Walden Books, et.al.) came along, there was much worry on the part of the traditional publishers about what this could mean to their sales and profits. “Those stores were originally considered low-brow warehouses,” Rinzler says. “Paperback reprints for a dollar each. A lot of people in the business predicted the end of traditional publishing and independent bookstores.” In fact, however, sales increased and profits soared for the top best-sellers because of far greater volume over so many new outlets.

And now, electronic digital publishing and distribution, and self-publishing are changing the scene in ways that are even more dramatic. “Gradually, although kicking and screaming,” Rinzler notes, “traditional book publishers and sellers are being dragged into the 21st century.”

“And one of the biggest factors in this has been the rise of Amazon. Their brilliant new idea was to sell books on line and through the mail directly to buyers, in ways that traditional publishers had never before done. Also the idea of discounting certain titles, or offering chapters of a book for free, the result often being that readers buy the books in much greater volume…because they know what they’re getting.”

There’s an authentic revolution in book publishing that has greatly impacted the author’s potential to receive a greater share of the profits. In traditional publishing, the author’s royalty has always been 10-12-15% for a hard-cover; 7-1/2 to 10% percent for trade paperback; even lower for certain kinds of mass publishing. Now, with the advent of the Kindle, the iPad, and many quite legitimate digital and print-on-demand self-publishing programs, an author can receive as much as 70% of the retail price as royalties.

The growth of electronic publishing has brightened the future for individual writers in ways that provide new incentive for true writing talent, and new enthusiasm among readers of good books. With electronic publishing, more books that are well written are finding the light of day, and delivered much more quickly into the hands of avid readers. Traditional publishing is, to be sure, still doing fine. The printed book will not soon disappear, if ever, but the market share of ebook to print has grown from 5% to 30% over the past few years and is projected to surpass 50% of all book sales within two or three more.

“Yes, I think this is the best time ever for an author,” Rinzler says.

“The balance of power has shifted from the gatekeepers to the artists. Now the author is in a position to take control of the means of production, which has almost never been the case in the history of publishing. They can control the content, the design, the appearance, the production itself…and also, by the way, receive a much larger share of the profits from all that.”

Rinzler breaks into a grin.

“I understand that an author may want to do things in the traditional way, having the imprimatur of that important publisher’s brand name on the spine of his or her book. But to me, that’s like having a spot on the roster of the 1947 Yankees. Now I always ask my writers, ‘How much time have you got? How much patience? How much tolerance for frustration? Rejection? Or for just plain being ignored?’”

Rinzler’s questions reveal the reality, for most writers, of dealing with traditional publishing. And that’s why, he continues, self-publishing has now become such a viable alternative. What once was the worst thing for a serious writer to do, now offers very great potential value to that writer. No longer is self-publishing an embarrassing admission of defeat by authors whose work does not attract a traditional publisher. Now writers can hire their own developmental editors and jacket designers and skip over the big wait.

“If you’ve gone for a year or two with no positive response from traditional publishers, self-publishing begins to look pretty good,” Rinzler says. “And of course, there’s the precedent of self-published books becoming best sellers. Miracles do happen!”

Alev Lytle Croutier’s Harem: The World Behind the Veil…25th anniversary edition

Had I not read Alev Lytle Croutier’s Harem: The World Behind the Veil when it was first published 25 years ago, I would have continued thinking that a harem in Turkey was basically a gathering of women sequestered–imprisoned–for the deviant sexual pleasure of the pasha, sultan or whomever else was in charge. Like that of most other people in the west, my understanding of the harem was a salacious one, and very inaccurate.

Croutier’s book was therefore a revelation, and in its re-publication in a new edition this year, it remains one.

Alev Lytle Croutier

Alev Lytle Croutier

I learned once more in the preface that Croutier’s paternal grandmother and that woman’s sisters had actually been members of a harem: “Which really means a separate part of a house where women lived in isolation, having no contact with men other than their blood relatives. The term does not necessarily imply the practice of polygamy.” Those sentences begin Croutier’s sophisticated and fascinating education of the reader about what a harem actually was for her grandmother as well as for countless other women, at various levels of Turkish society, over the previous centuries.

We learn about the Grand Harem of the sultan, and what activities the women could engage in…the poetry of the harem, the shadow puppets plays they mounted, the secrets of flowers and birds, the riddles they shared, the stories they told, their outings, games, and many other activities.

“Women of the harem were renowned for their luminous complexions and satin skin,” Croutier writes, and therewith begins a tour of the grand harem baths.

“To wash and purify oneself was a religious obligation. This may perhaps explain the existence of so many baths in the Seraglio. The sultan, the Valide, and the wives all had private baths, while the other women of the harem shared a large bathhouse, which sometimes welcomed the sultan as well–the stuff of Orientalist fantasy…For harem women, deprived of so many freedoms, the hamam (i.e. Turkish bath) became an all-consuming passion and a most luxurious pastime.”

We learn every detail about the baths: the water used, the henna floral designs for special occasions, perspiration preventatives, the powders, the brushes, the spices, the depilatory called ada, which was a paste made of sugar and lemon (for which Croutier provides the recipe and the method for using the concoction)…everything.

We also learn who the sultanas were, the princesses and the relationships between them all, the organization of the harem, the social relationships between the various levels of harem hierarchy, pregnancy and accouchement within the harem, and the handling of childbirth.

The Grand Harem in the Topkapi Palace was one thing, in which many, many women lived in luxurious surroundings. These were the kinds of harems so much written about by western commentators, whose descriptions Croutier uses very often and quite colorfully. But one of the most interesting chapters in the book for me (because it was the least expected) is titled “Ordinary Harems”. A Turkish Muslim man of modest means could still marry four women legally, and they were his harem. The situation for these women was far more workaday and closely familial than for those in the royal seraglio, and Croutier’s description of the customs involved are very special…and even personal.

“Romance or not, families decided who married whom. My grandmother was promised to her father’s best friend when she was merely a child. When they eventually got married, she was fourteen and my grandfather was forty.

In this chapter, we see how a proper husband should treat his wives (for example, “Good husbands were diplomatic. They abided by the Qur’an and gave the impression of treating all their women equally…The husband alternated nights in the bedrooms, spending Friday nights exclusively with their first wives.”). She describes what the relationships among the wives could be like, what was required for household upkeep, the treatment of odalisques (i.e. house servants), and even the various preparations of the bodies of deceased wives for burial.

This chapter on ordinary harems was unusual for me because I had not realized that a harem was a reality in almost every level of the society that Croutier describes, and not intended solely for the sultan and others of the upper-class. The chapter is a view of everyday life in this society that may have gone unnoticed by western readers had it not been for Croutier’s study of it.

John Singer Sargent: Fumée d'Ambre Gris, 1880, oil on canvas. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Used with permission.

John Singer Sargent: Fumée d’Ambre Gris, 1880, oil on canvas. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Used with permission.

Harem is quite lavishly illustrated with photos of various harem women (including some from Croutier’s own family in Turkey). Many of the illustrations come from Turkish artists of the historical period being covered, and there is as well a number of breath-taking paintings done by such Europeans as Eugéne Delacrox, Leon Bakst, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and others, all influenced by the popular European Orientalist movements of the period. I first saw one of my very favorite paintings in this book: John Singer Sargent’s Fumée d’Ambre Gris, in which an extraordinary woman, in contemplation of the essential perfume of amber coming up to her from a harem censer, is lost in lush, joyful contemplation. The setting–an alcove in some corner of a harem chamber–is severe, of bone-like white, while the carpets, the glorious censer, the woman’s clothing and jewelry and, especially, her hands and face, exude the sensitivity of private, sensuous dreaming.

In the 25 years since the first publication of Harem, the situation for women in Muslim societies has changed profoundly. Croutier has studied this, and writes in this new edition:

“The Internet has created a dynamic exchange in which a Moslem woman can be a traditionalist or an iconoclast, a housewife or an entrepreneur. The neutral ground of cyberspace allows women to learn about their rights within the religion, without the usual cultural or traditional barriers.”

This is all to the good, of course, and turning back is not an option. But Croutier herself misses one aspect of the old way.

“It never ceases to amaze me that all my research for this book was done without the Internet. Those old fashioned forms of research–long hours in the library, the manuscripts, the dust and bookish enjoyment of the search for knowledge–certainly had more of a romantic edge for me.”

The idea of a harem has always been of interest to the west, although the truth of the harem is often sacrificed to over-wrought sensualist fantasy. The reality of the harem, as presented in this fine book, brings the idea to lovely–and accurate–fruition.

Terence Clarke is the director of publishing of Astor & Lenox. His new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published in early 2015. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.

Gabo Returns!

Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez


Under the headline “Gabo Returns to Colombia”, the Colombian magazine Revista Arcadia published the following today:

Penguin Random House, owner of the world rights to the works of Gabriel García Márquez, will publish the complete works of the Nobel Prize winner in Colombia on December 12, 2014.

The absurd situation regarding García Márquez’s novels in Colombia seems to be coming to an end. After a number of years during which only paperback editions could be obtained in commercial bookstores here, due to the very low sales commission rates offered to independent book stores by Editorial Norma—the previous owner of the rights—luxury hard-cover editions will finally now be available everywhere in the country.

In recent years, the circumstances have taken on laughable dimensions. When García Márquez passed away, the majority of his books were re-issued in Argentina and Mexico, but not in Colombia.

Given that, some booksellers had to resort to selling English-language editions or to purchasing the books from Amazon for re-sale. Now, thanks to the publisher Penguin Random House, the complete works of the Nobel Prize winner will be re-issued in Colombia.

To celebrate, here following is my translation of a little story by Gabo that was published originally in 1978…
__________

Light’s like Water
Gabriel García Márquez

At Christmas, the boys once again asked for a rowboat.

“All right,” their daddy said. “We’ll buy it when we get back to Cartagena.”

Totó, who was nine, and Joel, seven, were far more decided about this than their parents could even believe.

“No,” they chorused. “We want it now and here.”

“To start with,” the mother said, “there aren’t any navigable waters here other than what comes out of the shower.”

She was just as right about this as her husband was. In their house in Cartagena de Indias, there was a patio with a pier on the bay, and a boat shelter for two large yachts. By comparison, here in Madrid they all lived jammed together on the fifth floor of 47 Paseo de la Castellana. But in the end, nether daddy nor mommy could say no because they had promised the boys a rowboat, along with a sextant and a compass, if they were to win the third grade prize, and they had won it.

So it was that the daddy bought the boat without saying a word to his wife, who was the more reluctant of the two to pay off any sort of gambling debt. It was a cute aluminum boat with a line of golden rope along the waterline.

“The boat’s in the garage,” the daddy revealed at lunch. “The problem is, there’s no way to bring it up either in the elevator or on the stairs, and there’s no more available space anywhere.”

That Saturday afternoon, however, the boys invited their classmates over, to bring the boat up by the stairs, and they succeeded in getting it into the utility room.

“Congratulations,” the daddy said to them. “And now what?”

“Nothing now,” the boys said. “The only thing we wanted was to get the boat into the room, and now it’s there.”

The next Wednesday night, as on all Wednesday nights, the parents went to the movies. The boys, now owners and masters of the house, closed the doors and windows, and broke the lit-up light bulb of a living room lamp. A spray of golden light, fresh as water, began to come out of the broken bulb, and they let it run up, until the level of it reached that of four open handprints. Then they cut off the current, brought out the boat, and navigated at their pleasure through the islands of the house.

This fabulous adventure was the result of a bit of flippancy on my part when I participated in a seminar on the poetry of domestic utensils.

Totó asked me how it was that light came on simply from the pressing of a switch, and I didn’t have the nerve to think about it even more than just once.

“Light’s like water,” I responded to him. “You open the tap, and out it comes.”

Thus did they continue navigating every Wednesday in the evening, learning how to handle the sextant and the compass, until their parents would come back from the movies to find them sleeping like angels on terra firma.

Months later, eager to go even further, they asked for fishing equipment. Everything: masks, flippers, oxygen tanks and compressed-air spear guns.

“It’s bad enough that you’ve got a rowboat in the utility room that doesn’t do anything,” the father said. “But it’s worse that you also want diving equipment.”

“And if we win the first semester Golden Gardenia?” Joel said.

“No,” said the mother, frightened. “No more!”

The father reproached her for her intransigence.

“Look, these kids don’t get a penny even for doing their homework,” she said, “but with some little caprice like this, they’re able to take over for the teacher himself.”

The parents didn’t say either yes or no finally. But Totó and Joel, who the previous two years had come in last, won the two Golden Gardenias in July, and the public recognition of the school rector. That same afternoon, without having had to ask again, they found in their bedroom the diving gear in its original packaging. So that, the following Wednesday, while the parents saw Last Tango in Paris, the boys filled the apartment up to two fathoms deep, dived like peaceful sharks under the furniture and beds, and rescued from the very bottom of the light those things that for years had been lost in darkness.

At the final awards ceremony, the brothers were acclaimed as an example to the school, and were given diplomas of excellence. This time, they didn’t have to ask for anything, because their parents asked them what they wanted. The boys were very reasonable, asking only for a party at home to honor their schoolmates.

The father, left alone with their mother, was radiant.

“It’s proof of their maturity,” he said.

“God is listening,” said the mother.

The following Wednesday, while their parents went to see The Battle of Algiers, the people passing up la Castellana saw a cascade of light from an old building hidden among the trees. It came down from the balconies, spilling in gushes down the front of the building, and made a channel up the great avenue in a golden torrent that lit up the city all the way to the Guadarrama.

Called out urgently, firemen forced open the door on the fifth floor, and found the house covered in light up to the ceiling. The sofa and armchairs, covered in leopard skin, floated around the room at different levels, between bottles from the bar and the baby grand piano and its manila-colored cover, which flapped around half-submerged like a golden manta ray. The domestic utensils, in the fullness of their poetry, flew with their own wings across the heaven of the kitchen. The military band instruments, to the music from which the boys danced, floated in a circle around the drain among the fishes liberated from mommy’s fishbowl, which were the only ones that floated alive and happy in the vast illuminated swamp. In the bathroom, everyone’s toothbrush floated about, with daddy’s condoms, mommy’s jars of cream and her extra set of dentures, the television from the principal bedroom floating on its side, still turned on to the last scene of a late-night film prohibited to kids.

At the end of the corridor, floating and perplexed, Totó was seated in the rowboat’s stern, hanging on to the oars with a set face, looking for the port lighthouse from which he could refill the air tanks, and Joel floated in the prow still searching the height of the polar star with the sextant, and their 37 classmates floated through the entire house as though forever in the very moment of going pee-pee in the pot of geraniums, of singing the school hymn changed with lyrics mocking the rector, and secretly drinking glassfuls of brandy from daddy’s bottle. They had turned on so many lights at the same time that the house had spilled over with it, and the entire first-year room of the San Julián el Hospitalario School had been drowned on the fifth floor of number 47 Paseo de la Castellana. In Madrid, Spain, a remote city of burning summers and icy winds, without a sea or a river, whose terra firma aborigines had never mastered the science of navigating the light.

Wilfredo’s Debussy

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“Excuse me.” The black man wore a puffy double-breasted brown suit that was too large for his enormous frame. The tie seemed to have been tied just once, then loosened, removed and put back on, over and over again for years. His black shoes had quite thick soles and heels, the kind of footwear worn by security guards, so that what they give to the wearer in comfort, they lose in style. This man also carried a large Trader Joe’s paper bag that contained a number of sheet music manuscripts, the covers of which, Monk could see, had faded badly or were scuffed along the edges. “May I ask you a question?”

Monk Samuels had been looking at an old Bechstein B grand piano that he frequently came to admire, jealous that such a fine instrument could be sitting alone – music itself, as it were, waiting to be played – on the showroom floor. His jealousy was restrained, though, because he was also very glad that the piano store, called Debussy, on West 58th Street, had the good sense to display this instrument. It had been sold back to the store recently, and rebuilt. The refined beauty of its finishing, its general appearance so dignified and perfectly lacquered ebony, were matched – overwhelmed actually – by its somber tone. This piano played intimately, yet with a heartfelt resonance that made the delicacy of feel in its keyboard seem a miracle. Monk was thrilled to be able to come into the store and, watched always by the salesman Sergei, play one or two little things.

They had become friends. One of Sergei’s duties was to protect the pianos from amateurs, unless of course some amateur had just bought one of them and the bank had transferred the funds. He had learned though that Monk knew what he was doing, even though he was not doing, say, Mozart. More often Monk did Bill Evans or Duke Ellington. But that was OK with Sergei because Monk understood those fellows so well.

Monk looked up from the piano bench. “A question?”

He had seen this man in the store on several occasions. He too appeared to savor the pianos. He walked around studying them, always with the bag of sheet music hanging from one hand. Monk had never seen him play, and had even asked Sergei about him.

“I’ve asked him if he wanted to try any of the instruments.” Sergei’s Hungarian accent remained slightly noticeable in his otherwise American English. He had come to New York as an infant, after the 1956 uprising in Hungary. He had, he often said, difficulty selling an instrument to anyone who resembled Nikita Krushchev. Sergei played piano well enough, but his real talent lay in understanding the workings inside the instrument. He had perfect pitch, and could fix almost anything that had been broken for whatever reason. His angular frame was all bony and slow moving. He thrived on hearing and then repairing the least noticeable of problems in a piano. Indeed, he seemed to rage within himself in search of such things.

“But he never has wanted to. I know he understands the music, the way he talks about the piano. And all that sheet music. He finds it in second-hand shops. He even has a copy of a Mozart sonata signed by Rubinstein.” Sergei placed a hand in the pocket of his suit coat and brought out a pipe, which he tapped against the palm of his left hand. “But, play? No.”

“Yes.” The man dropped the shopping bag to the floor, and then ran his right index finger along the lacquered surface of the Bechstein. “It’s just that I think you are not American.” His accent was Hispanic, Monk guessed.

“How so?”

A large grin appeared. “For one, you say things like ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you?’”

Monk extended his hand. “Aren’t you talking more about someone who isn’t from New York?”

“Maybe that’s it.”

“Because I’m not from New York.” Monk took the man’s hand into his. “I’m Monk Samuels.”

“Thank you. And I am Rodney Echeverría.”

“Puerto Rico?”

Rodney’s left shoulder dropped, a bit of despondency. “No. Cuba.”

“I’m from California.”

“Ah, that explains it.”

“Explains what?”

“Your seeming so foreign.”

***

Rodney invited Monk to join him for coffee at a place on 57th, across the street from Carnegie Hall. It was there that Monk explained to him why he was named Monk.

“Thelonious.”

“The great one, who played so out of tune.”

“Yes. My father was a fan.”

“He was a musician?”

“No, he helped fund companies. Apple Computer and so on. Cisco Systems. He was very successful.”

“Unlike my father…” Rodney made a circle with his right index finger on the tabletop. “Who taught piano for an hourly fee.”

“Mine loved Thelonious Monk because he played so many bad notes. He knew it was intentional on Thelonious’s part. He loved the comedy of it.”

“Just the comedy?”

“No. He also felt that Thelonious played with more delicacy and understanding than almost any of the other guys.” Monk wrapped the fingers of both hands around the warm mug of coffee. “The sorrow in all that discord.” His eyes blinked as he thought of his father, who had been a far better venture capitalist than musician, but who had known, somehow, who played well and who didn’t. “Thelonious Monk was a very great man.”

“He’s gone, your father.”

“A few years ago, yes.”

“And he enjoyed your playing.”

“I think it amazed him. He always asked from where, in his or my mother’s DNA…”

“Where did it come from?”

“That’s right.”

“And so, you are named after Thelonious, bad notes and…”

“Yes, bad notes and all.” Monk nodded toward the paper bag. “But why do you go to Debussy?”

“It’s that Bechstein, Monk. My father brought it with us from Cuba. We had lost everything except for that piano. Imagine trying to get an instrument like that out of danger when danger is everywhere. Our escape took all his money. But then he had to give up the piano itself because eventually we still had no money.”

“He sold it.”

“Yes. To Debussy. I was just a little kid when it happened. Like Sergei when he came to this country.” Rodney hid a smile behind his right hand. “There are a few differences between us, of course. I’m a black caribeño, and he’s…he’s…” Rodney looked over his shoulder. “He’s a northern European white boy. The Communists put down the rebels in his country.”

“And in yours, the Communists won.”

Rodney’s lips tightened as his shoulders sagged. “Yes, sadly.”

“How long have you been coming to Debussy, Rodney?”

“This year, it’s fifty years.”

“And the piano’s been there…”

“It’s been in the store, off and on, since that first time that my father brought me.” Rodney stirred some sugar into his coffee. “They would sell it and it would be gone for a while. But then it would come back…the most recent owner had died or had bet wrong on the market or something. And then my father would come back.”

“Why haven’t you ever played it?”

Rodney gave Monk a look of hurt and even, very briefly, dismay. “You would ask me to betray him?”

“No. Rodney, I…”

“The piano’s been in prison, don’t you see?”

Monk searched Rodney’s eyes, a petition for forgiveness. “What was your father’s name?”

“Wilfredo Echeverría Bourbón.”

“What did he do that first day he brought you to the store?”

Rodney remained silent for a long moment. “He too was heavy, like me. He breathed with difficulty, a raspy sound that he had to quell when he was playing. He often said to me that he was afraid the children he taught would think him a ghost, a ‘fantasma’, as we say.” He spoke haltingly, as if a wound had seeped open. “With chains running around his lungs. That day, he stared at the piano a long while.”

“That’s all?”

The wound flowed. “No. He placed his right hand on the keyboard and played a few chords.”

“Do you remember which ones?”

“Schubert.”

“Anything else?”

“Brahms. And Beethoven, of course.” Rodney lowered his voice, almost to a whisper. “Before Fidel and the revolution, my father had been considering a concert career. Even though he was black, he was arranging for his first appearances in Europe, but…” Rodney took in a breath. “Fidel and Che, they didn’t think much of that idea.” Rodney sipped from his coffee, replaced the cup on the table, and fingered a small macaroon – his favorite cookie, he had told Monk – as he considered what next to say. “A career extinguished before it could even get started.” He brought the macaroon to his lips, savoring the coconut. “My father loved Brahms. But he often told me that he could barely speak of Brahms in the same breath with Beethoven.”

“And he couldn’t afford to buy the piano back.”

“Never. He played on all kinds of other instruments. Friends’ pianos. Pianos in the public schools where he taught. Tinny, elderly pianos. Out of tune, exhausted pianos. His students’ pianos when their mothers would allow a black man like him to come into their apartments. But that Bechstein…he called it ‘my Debussy’. The loss of that piano broke my father, Monk, almost as much as the revolution did.”

Rodney exhaled, a bit of gravel in his own breathing.

“It broke his heart.”

***

They did not see each other for several weeks. Mid-summer blazed, and Sergei told Monk that Rodney suffered from the heat, and that he had been staying at home. “It’s his weight, I think. I worry about him.”

Monk had floated the loan finally, cleared the space in his apartment on Riverside Drive, and the moving men delivered the Bechstein on a Friday afternoon. He asked Sergei to come to the apartment the next day and check the instrument’s tuning. In the early evening, after Sergei had completed his work, he asked Monk to play.

Monk poured out two glasses of sauvignon blanc and sat down at the piano to play a version of “I Got It Bad, And That Ain’t Good”. The lilt and frivolity of the tune made both men smile, especially when Monk played it in a few different styles…Art Tatum’s, Oscar Peterson’s and, of course, Thelonious Monk’s. Like Thelonious, Monk intentionally missed notes, came up short on the chords or played chords that were heavily discordant. He did not know whether Sergei could imagine the fruitlessness of such a task, since Monk’s playful clumsiness was so much less accomplished than Thelonious’s would have been. Monk knew that he had talent as a pianist, but not talent like that.

Nonetheless, as the lowering sun approached the gilt-tinged river, Monk also knew that this was the piano that he had been searching for all his life. The many recordings he had made, the critical acclaim he had garnered, and his ongoing career as a Grammy-winning jazz pianist…all had been aiming at a piano like this one, and now, finally, the piano was his.

“Bravo.” Sergei raised the glass in a toast to Monk’s superb playing.

***

Marta insisted on making coffee.

“My wife makes the very best coffee in the world.” Rodney sat in an armchair smoking a cigar. “She is Cuban, after all, and so you would expect such excellence.”

A small woman in a burgundy colored dress, her very black hair detailed with a white gardenia, Marta went into the small kitchen in Monk’s apartment, exclaimed about Monk’s good taste to have a proper Bialetti 6800 Moka Express 6-cup stovetop espresso maker “ready to roll”, as she put it, laughing, the “R’s” burbling from the end of her tongue with correct Cuban gusto, and set to work. She also found the package of coconut macaroons on the sink, which Monk had bought earlier from Zabar’s, and went about arranging them on the plate he had left for her.

“Well, Rodney?” Monk sat in a second armchair. He had taken great care with his appearance on this afternoon, making sure that the double-breasted gray suit he wore fit him well, was properly pressed and formed a formal, modest witness, with the deep blue silk tie and paisley green kerchief, to what it was about to hear.

Rodney stood, placed the cigar in an ashtray on the coffee table before him, and warmly examined Wilfredo’s Debussy. “Thank you, Monk.” He walked toward the piano, and then ran a hand across the ebony lacquer, lightly strummed the strings inside the instrument and listened to the buzz-like response that resulted, a sound that had always reminded Monk of some sort of laughing threnody. He loved the sound, the shimmering anguish of it.

Rodney sat on the lacquered bench and began playing. It was a small Mozart piece. “Köchel 311, Monk. Second movement.” Marta stood silently in the doorway to the kitchen, her right hand resting against her right cheek, as she watched her husband. He played the piece with unsettling slowness. His head hung over the keyboard, almost motionlessly. Tenderness riffled from the instrument, Rodney’s very large fingers making the lightest of impressions on the keys. The music formed a small stream of sound hurrying through smooth caressing stones, beneath a dawn filled with slowly warming light. It was a sad memory brightly recalled, played so lightly that the lightness itself became an elegy, an expression of true mourning.

(This story is one of 16, a collection titled New York, which will be published next year.)