Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Early Impressions: Conversation in the Cathedral

I’m told that Section One of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel Conversation in the Cathedral is the most difficult to read, and I have to admit that I’m relieved to hear that. I’ve enjoyed the novel thus far, but I’ve also found it quite challenging – although it’s not as obscure and opaque as James Joyce’s Ulysses, the narrative style is extremely confusing until you get the hang of reading Vargas Llosa’s particular brand of stream-of-consciousness. For those of you faint-hearted readers who find Virginia Woolf's writing to be too taxing, I wouldn’t recommend Conversation in the Cathedralthis is stream-of-consciousness writing on steroids. But for those of you who are willing to spend a few hours (or more) in a state of confusion, I’d say the novel is worth the time and effort, at least based on my feelings about the first section (and the first fifteen pages or so of the second section).

Let me explain a little bit about Vargas Llosa’s narrative style in Conversation in the Cathedral, which differs from the way that he uses stream-of-consciousness in some of his other novels that I’ve read. In Storyteller, I seem to remember that the narration often moves fluidly from one thought to another inside a character’s mind, much like the narrative style of Modernist author Woolf and Vargas Llosa’s contemporary and fellow Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When reading stream-of-consciousness writing, the reader must pay very close attention in order to understand the character’s train of thought, separating individual ideas and thoughts from the uninterrupted flow of language. The reader must also pay attention to whether the narration of one character has suddenly given way to a whole other character’s train of thought, which sometimes happens with very few clues or indications that this has happened. In Conversation in the Cathedral, though, Vargas Llosa’s two main characters are recounting the stories of their lives to each other while drinking in a bar – and in each chapter, several different scenes are interwoven as the memories of the drunken men blur together.

My experience reading these chapters, with Santiago and Ambrosio’s memories interwoven and blurred together, has followed a particular pattern. First I would experience utter confusion as Vargas Llosa would introduce approximately six to nine characters at the beginning of the chapter (there are usually at least two or three characters in each interwoven scene, and seem to be an average of three scenes that overlap with each other at any given time). Then, I would start to understand the relationships between the characters and the overlapping scenes – a conversation between Santiago and his friends from San Marcos University might be interwoven with a conversation that with his father, and then also with his present-day commentary about his friends directed at Ambrosio. In each section, each of the scenes illuminates the others in different ways. Once my confusion had mostly subsided, I would become engrossed in the storyline of the particular chapter. But then, inevitably, the chapter would end and another would begin – and at the start of each new chapter, I felt as though I was hitting the reset button. I felt a little frustrated, since I had just put in all the effort to decipher the rules and context of the previous chapter so that I could enjoy the story – and now I must do the same thing for the next section, and the next.

Let me emphasize, though, that I think it is worth the effort – once I become absorbed in each chapter’s story, I again find that I am glad that I struggled through the first five pages to figure out who was who. There are many interesting and sympathetic characters in this novel, all of whom seem tied together in loose but important ways. I am most interested and engrossed in the narrative threads about Ambrosio’s former girlfriend Amalia, young Santiago’s love triangle with fellow university students Adia and Jacobo, Santiago’s life-long struggle to pull away from his father, and his search to find something in which he can truly believe. These relationships are complex and compelling, and they also serve to illuminate much of the corruption present at all levels of Peruvian government and society. I am not as drawn to the narrative threads about the government officials Don Cayo Bermudez and Colonel Espina, except for the fact that they have dealings with Santiago’s father Don Fermin Zavala which then effect both Santiago and Ambrosio, as well as Santiago’s friends and peers.

Overall, I like the intensely personal nature of many of these smaller interwoven stories, and although the narrative style of Conversation in the Cathedral is extremely challenging to read at times, it plays an important role in conveying many of the character’s emotions in an intimate way. In particular, Santiago’s disappointment and disillusionment bleed through the layers of the narrative as he offers a straightforward commentary on his own life and as he inadvertently recalls emotions and sensations that unavoidably effect the way that he describes a scene to his old friend Ambrosio.

But while I am enjoying the novel, I am also relieved to know that the reading experience will get a little easier starting with Section Two of Conversation in the Cathedral. I am interested to see exactly why Vargas Llosa might want to switch narrative styles mid-stream, so to speak – and since the interwoven stream-of-consciousness scenes help to convey the intimacy of emotion in Section One, I can only guess that a different technique must also help Vargas Llosa convey something else that is integral to the story.

Note: As I read longer novels, I will sometimes post thoughts about the book before I finish reading it, then still write a separate review. Since these are some of my initial thoughts from as I read the first section of Conversation in the Cathedral, I haven’t yet included a rating. Check back over the weekend for more thoughts, and a full review of the novel is coming some time next week (the novel is four parts long…).

This post participates in my Reading Focus on Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa. For more info and reviews, check out my other posts on the author.

1 comment:

  1. I'm reading it in Spanish for a book group -- we had two months with it, which was good because I'm sure I would have given up if I had to read it in a couple of weeks as I usually do -- it's 720 pages! I just found this googling around to find out -- who the heck is Espina one more time? Glad to know somebody else in Rockland likes this kind of thing and I hope you finished it!


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