11 April 2008

Alberto Manguel - Into the Looking Glass Wood

This is a collection of essays on writers and literature, most of which were originally published elsewhere. That they form a neat ensemble is due to the consistency of Manguel's themes and the irrepressible spark of his writing.

Much of this collection is concerned with the moral necessity of literature, and its relation to prejudice, oppression and liberal thought. The central essay relates to Mario Vargas Llosa, whom Manguel despises not just for his conservative politics, but more because those are at odds with the humanity of his early novels. Manguel wonders how Llosa the politician and Llosa the novelist can have such contradictory views, and suggests that it's born either of cynicism, or a lack of self-knowledge. The particular views to which Manguel objects includes Llosa's support for an amnesty for the perpetrators of crimes under the Argentine junta in the 1970s, and his view that the culture of indigenous Indians in Peru may be sacrificed for the cause of progress (to which one critic responded, "This is of course the sacrifice that many white Peruvians have been willing to perform ever since the first of them leapt ashore with Pizarro.")

Manguel's moral indignation energises this essay, and another on Llosa in the book - the fact that there are two shows just how deeply felt this is. And another piece indicates why this might be so. Manguel left Argentina for Europe in the late 60s, just before the military regime clamped down on dissent. Many of his student colleagues were arrested and executed - the details he heard many years later of their fate are grisly and shocking, and no doubt he maintains complex feelings of outrage, mixed perhaps with some guilt at his absence while his colleagues were being persecuted.

There are other pieces on being Jewish, on gay literature and erotic literature (originally written as introductions to collections) and a strained and now dated piece on electronic modes of reading. There's also a piece about the disctinction between erotica and pornography that starts with an uncharacteristic rant against American Psycho, in which I feel his outrage and indignation have blinded him to the literary merits of the work. This is unusual for Manguel, he usually has a quite sure sense, and I would have expected him to pick up on the narrative tricks of the novel, which he seems to have missed completely.

Manguel is one of those writers who make you rush to find the writers he enthuses about, from Cynthia Ozick to Julio Cortazar. Borges is an ever-present shadow, being Manguel's mentor, and many of the old master's enthusiasms have become the pupil's, including the anglophilia that delights in Robert Louis Stevenson and GK Chesterton, recurrent in Manguel's writing. He's always entertaining, as I hope he will be when I go to see him talk on the South Bank tomorrow night.



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