Tuesday, 29 April 2014

'Liveforever' by Andrés Caicedo (Review)

Maybe/ I don't really wanna know/ how your garden grows/ 'Cos I just wanna fly
While the title of today's book immediately brings a certain band to mind for my generation, we're actually travelling a little further afield than Manchester.  Almost twenty years before Liam Gallagher sang those words, in Colombia a young writer was putting pen to paper on a work which was to sear his name into the country's literary history - and yes, it's all about the music...

*****
Andrés Caicedo's short novel Liveforever (translated by Frank Wynne, review copy courtesy of Penguin Classics) is a pulsating, energy-laden work which thrusts the reader into a world of drugs, violence and music (oh yes, lots of music).  It's set in Cali, Colombia, between 1973 and 1974, and is the story of a generation doomed to failure.  There'll be no fading away here, though - these are the kind of kids who like to burn out, often spectacularly...

Our guide through the world of salsa and rumbas is María del Carmen Huerta, a respectable, intelligent, beautiful middle-class teenager, growing up in Cali.  One day, though, she decides it's time to break free of her bourgeois upbringing and explore the world of music.  It proves to be a fateful decision:
"Every life hinges on the course we decide to take at one precise, privileged moment.  On that Saturday in August I broke with my routine, and the same night I ended up at Skinny Flores's 'rumba'.  It was a simple decision, but one that would have extraordinary consequences.  One of them is that I now find myself here, safe in this haven of night, telling my story, shorn of all social standing and the crass manners I was raised with.  No doubt I'll be held up as an example.  'Peace and goodwill over my land'."
p.29 (Penguin Modern Classics, 2014)
This one night, a frantic escape into music, is to set the course for her future.  Once she's made the decision to venture into the night, there's no going back.

Liveforever could be described as the story of María's descent into an underworld of drugs and debauchery.  Caicedo, using the voice of María herself, relates detailed descriptions of drug use, hedonism and week-long parties, and we see the youths of the street crumble into pieces, drained by music and drugs:
"Music that feeds on live flesh, music that leaves you with nothing but blisters, music hot off the wax, that's what I want, what I live for; bring it on, sap my energy if you can, turn my values on their head, let me founder, abandon me to criminality, because I don't know anything any more..." (p.115)
This is a generation that will most definitely die before it gets old...

When night falls (as it does, suddenly and brutally, at 6 p.m.), the languid behaviour of the hot day gives way to an outpouring of carnal energy, a situation María quickly comes to terms with:
"So what if I grabbed the night by the balls, so what if I broke its spirit, wore it out and drained it dry?  At least I was still standing: not like the men, who drop like flies." (p.5)
It's then that we see the city come to life, as María pulls us in her magical wake from rumba to rumba, looking for parties, hunting down the music.  Sure, we get to dance, but death and destruction is left in our wake.

Yet that's not how it is for María herself.  Beautiful and vibrant, with the face (and hair) of a goddess, she becomes a focal point of the nocturnal community, the heart of the dance.  She looks damned good on the dancefloor, and she knows it (so does everyone else); in fact, there's something, magical, mystical about her.  In the blonde-haired dancing diva from the right side of town, the street boys find someone to worship.

Worship of this kind is not without its dangers, though, and María is a goddess of the most pagan kind; the music may feed on live flesh, but so does our María.  She's a dangerous woman, a Colombian femme fatale, the flame into which the moth-like youths who surround her at the rumbas cannot help but fly. Like a Latina Medusa, or siren, she inflicts wounds on men, her hair slicing cuts in the soul of any man who moves into her orbit, cuts they cherish when they're coming down after the long night.  Each man that she encounters is entranced by her spell, but ends up wasted, worn, spat out and humbled - she sucks their spirit dry, then moves onto the next.  One night in Cali can make any man humble, hard or otherwise.

The whole book is like one long, pulsating dance, a hypnotic, spell-binding, energy-sapping tribute to music.  María needs music, she senses it, hunts it down, then, when she finds a worthy gathering, a rumba with feeling, she uses the men she meets to absorb it.  From her childhood friend Ricardito, she receives the gift of translated English lyrics, from the red-headed gringo Leopoldo Brook, live music, pulsing and throbbing, from Rubén Paces, lessons in the history of salsa...

...and they all come to a sad end (just stayin' alive is a feat in the underworld of Cali...).  María seems less a woman at times than a force of nature, the goddess of the dark dance, music incarnate.  With Colombian music interfused with African rhythms and pagan language, it's tempting to see her as something otherworldly, a succubus, a wraith...

As you might have realised, this is a book I loved, devouring it in a matter of hours.  The writing is wonderful, with the frantic energy of the voices and the ceaseless, constant twisting of direction, the language is heavily descriptive, attacking the reader's senses with colours, textures, emotions - we can feel the rhythm, smell the sweat, hear the music...  The text is intermingled with song lyrics, half prose, half music, our journey through the world of salsa...

Spare a thought then for the poor translator...  In addition to having to transport Caicedo's dazzling words into English, Wynne also had to identify the lyrics embedded in the prose and make it clear for the Anglophone readers who (as he points out in his Translator's Note) are hardly "...likely to have an in-depth knowledge of salsa and the many related styles of Afro-Cuban music..." (p.xviii).  Poor Frank - I can imagine the time and energy that must have gone into this translation.  Perhaps his wonderful rendering into English comes at the cost of becoming María's latest victim...

In short, Liveforever is a wonderful book - I'd say I'm surprised that it hasn't appeared in English before, but, let's face it, I'm not (I've been in the game of reviewing translated fiction for far too long for things like that to surprise me...).  For those who want to know more about Caicedo though, this, sadly, is just about it.  On the day, he received a copy of the book, he killed himself, overdosing on pills, a sad post-script to his work.

The story, though, lives on, as does the music, and while I prefer the poignant English title, the original is probably a little more apt.  You see, in Spanish the book is called ¡Que viva la música!, which translates to something like 'Long Live Music!'.  This seems a fitting epitaph for the book as we leave María to her life in Cali, with the music beating on into eternity.  You see, you simply can't stop the music - nobody can stop the music...

11 comments:

  1. Not my kind of book, but a great review. (from Nanosecond)

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    1. Nanosecond - Thanks - but you never know ;)

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  2. I'm trying to hold off from buying any more books at the moment, but your review leaves me sorely tempted by this one...I love the sound of its pulsating, hypnotic energy.

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    1. Jacqui - It's that kind of book :)

      I'm glad I get a lot of good review copies because I doubt I could afford to buy all of these either!

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    2. I've just ordered this from Hive - a little treat to myself! Looking forward to reading it.

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  3. Great review, and maybe the next Andrés Caicedo's title for Frank Wynne translation is 'El Atravesado'; I'm sure you love this one too.

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    1. j - Well, Frank said this one took a lot of translating, so I'm not sure how keen he'll be to leap into another ;) Thanks for the tip, though :)

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    2. El Atravesado is short and fun, but the thing with Caicedo is that he uses a lot of slang that even for me (I'm from Medellín) is hard to digest. Awnyway, it's great to see a good review of a book I loved so much, I always wanted to read it in english, so much that I even translated a few pages myself. BTW, how did this Wynne guy translated the part where Ricardo translates "Moonlight Mile" for María?, since the song is in English and all, and how did he do with the part where Caicedo puts an entire Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz song (Lo Atare La Arache) in one paragraph? I don't know why, but even since I heard the book had been translated, these questions have been bugging me.

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    3. Georgie - For 'Moonlight Mile', the lyrics are in short blocks, italicised, and María and Ricardo talk between these short blocks. It's probably easier in English as there's no need to do the song in two languages ;) For 'Lo atara la araché', the song is kept in the original language, one dense paragraph with no sentence breaks - no English translation provided...

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  4. Andres Caicedo was a prolific writer for his short life.

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    1. Anonymous - I'd love to see more in English, but I'm not holding my breath...

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