The Olive Field, by Ralph Bates

This novel belongs to 1936, the era in which it was published. It does not read like a novel of today. Nor even like a novel of Hemingway or Fitzgerald, both of whom introduced a new style and a new literary attitude.

What I mean is that this novel has a rich vocabulary, but not a rich reality. It is about a small town in Andalucia, Los Olivares, that produces olives on a vast scale. And while we learn a lot about different kinds of olive trees and how they are cultivated, it is difficult to sense the reality of the village, both its geography, which is liberally described, and its people, who more often represent various political and spiritual viewpoints.

And that is my major problem. The characters do more reacting to the events around them than, as individuals, reacting to and influencing each other. Indeed, the movement of the novel is geared more to the calendar and the seasons. And each event within the calendar brings out the culture or the politics of the town, but they are isolated events, linked by the novel’s theme rather than by the actions of the characters. Moreover, it is often difficult to separate and identify each character, given their lack of interaction, and given that the characters are often identified by their titles rather than their names. Is this latter point, in fact, why at the end of a later 1966 edition there is an extensive list of the principle characters?

There are many events presented here that seem intended to illustrate the Spain of the 1930s, the political changes taking place and the economic dependence of this town on its single industry. Thus, there is a religious procession and a counter demonstration, with a subsequent trial. There is intrigue between two priests. There is a major storm that ruins the olive crop. There is rebellion by the olive workers. There is even a rape and an attempted abortion. But the events are not tied together. They seem to be included primarily to draw a complete portrait of this town and its people just prior to the explosion of the Spanish Civil War.

I write this as I am half way through this novel. I shall continue reading, however, because this work received many notable reviews when published. Let us see if I will revise my opinion over the second half.


No, I do not. Bates continue to portray life in the olive fields, the harvests, the problems and violence the workers face, their rebellion against the landowners and the supporting civil authority, finally resulting in the massacre of workers as they attempt to demonstrate against the town leaders. There is also the fate of Don Fadrique, the town’s leader and main landlord, as he discovers the betrayal of his mayordomo, a quiet interval that adds richness to the town’s atmosphere but does not advance the novel.

There is also the birth of an illegitimate child, a boy, to Lucia Robledo, in which the entire town becomes involved. This is followed by the unexpected death of a minor character. Which leads, arbitrarily, to the transfer of the two main characters to the north of Spain, to Asturias.

Those two characters, both advocates for the workers, as is the author, emerge from this conflict between the landowners and the olive workers. Joaquin Caro is more thoughtful, a negotiator, a peacemaker, while Diego Mudarra is more aggressive, more violent, more physical. Both love music and the guitar, both earn respect from other workers, and because both fall in love with the same girl, Lucia Robledo, they are both personal rivals and political companions.

It is Joaquin who makes the (author’s?) decision to move the action to Asturias. He does so because of the sudden death of his brother Marcial and because of the town massacre. He no longer feels tied to Los Olivares, and he feels disillusioned by the defeat of the olive workers. And, perhaps more significantly, Lucia has moved there (although I missed the author telling us why), and he still loves her.

Whereupon, the novel makes to two time jumps. First, Joaquin has found Lucia and has married her, and the reader encounters a lengthy discussion of how well they love each other, largely based on whether or not he will allow her illegitimate son to join them in Asturias. Which, again, does not advance the flow of the novel, even as it is an interesting psychological issue that enriches their portraits.

The second jump in time confronts the reader with a precursor to the Spanish Civil War. It is 1934, and suddenly the aggrieved workers in the north rebel against the center right government. The latent tension in the air seems to arbitrarily explode. And with this development, the entire tone of the novel changes. Joaquin and Mudarra are still prominent, but the novel’s action no longer revolves around them. Instead, they are used by the author to portray the uprising against the government. The action is conveyed more through narrative than through dramatization. One even wonders if Bates has chosen this premature rebellion in order to end his novel with a moment of high drama.

Why am I so negative about this novel which received much high praise when it was published? I wonder if it was the times—in another sense. That because it sympathized with the workers, it was regarded favorably by the anti-fascist intellectuals who were the critics. Certainly, Bates draws here an effective portrayal of the tensions within Spanish society in the 1930s. And he clearly favors the workers, even as he acknowledges the violence on both sides.

But Louis Kronenberger sums up my reaction in his 1936 New York Times review: Bates “can paint an exciting scene, stage a moment of telling drama, record a sharp conversation; but the sure, steady vividness which results from the march of events themselves, the creative breadth which makes the narrative and the meaning of the narrative inseparable, are things beyond his power. ‘The Olive Field,’ for better or worse is intensely episodic….[and] not, as it was plainly intended to be, a successful panoramic novel.”

I, too, admire the effort, but, less so, the result. (October, 2016)

Jack Gance, by Ward Just

This 1989 work is an ambitious novel that doesn’t quite come off. It is too episodic as it portrays the world of politics. It is most effective when its hero Jack Gance is young and naïve, and discovering the mysterious, hidden compromises behind the conflicts in Chicago politics. He also discovers the road his own life will take, when the Chicago machine hires him as a political pollster and he becomes fascinated by the power and intrigue in a world he never knew existed.

Like many youth in politics, Jack starts out as an idealist. The idea of polling appeals to him because in the Kennedy era ”hope, not fear, animated America at that time; and a campaign needed a narrative as much as a movie did, and for the same reasons.” And, in an apt metaphor, the human political reactions that polling reveals creates the novel’s narrative—that is, Jack’s rise in the political ranks. Ward here introduces the moral richness that lies deep within that political life. Indeed, as Judith Martin summarizes in her New York Times review, this novel “is about the difficulty of weighing loyalties, strategies, and principles in the not-always-successful attempt to achieve an accommodation of conflicting demands in public and private life.”

Jack also has a personal life that makes us interested in these career decisions. His parents are not happy with those decisions, particularly his father, a worldly man who tries to teach him about political life but then mysteriously lets himself be a fall guy. The IRS sends to prison for a crime neither Jack nor the reader understands. The only explanation is that his father has stood for a certain uncompromising standard that Jack himself cannot relate to. And this will later be contrasted with the compromises that Jack himself makes with E.L. Mozart, a Chicago lawyer deep inside the Chicago political machine.

Jack’s personal life also includes two affairs, one a true love affair and one a merely physical affair with a married women, Carole Nierendorf, when she is ignored by an ambitious husband also in the political world. Her presence seems intended to underscore Jack’s commitment to politics rather than to any personal life. He also somewhat falls into this affair on a rebound from the serious affair, which is with a refugee student, Katrina Lauren, who carries to Chicago the scars she endured in Berlin during World War II.

Except for these two women and his mother, the daily lives and career decisions of all the characters early in Jack’s career revolve around the world of Chicago politics. And, indeed, it is a valid presentation of Chicago and that world. Martin, however, suggests in her review that Jack is portrayed at a deeper level: “One sees a man without malice or inflated ego trying to do his duty to people and institutions but finding it all immensely complicated.” But for me the result is too arbitrary a portrait, because of the novel’s short length.

What I mean is that after the learning experiences of Jack’s youth, the author jumps ahead from career step to career step, without detailing for the reader how one step led to the next. Jack has simply moved up—to the White House as an aide to the president, then back in Chicago running for the U.S. Senate. It is as if Just has wanted to describe two worlds, that of Chicago politics and that of national politics, and the compromises that are required to take each step. But until the final approach to Jack by lawyer Mozart on a Chicago golf course, Just offers no connection in terms of those steps. He simply leaps ahead to a new decade, letting the reader fill in the gaps. As if he did not want to double the length of this novel in order to spell out what often takes a lifetime in politics to achieve.

Instead, his primary connection is more thematic. Thus, he introduces a conversation much earlier in the book in which Jack’s mentor, Professor Karcher, a Jewish refugee, tries to awaken Jack from what he calls the innocent hypocrisy of their university. He wants Jack to get out and discover the realities of real-world politics, and recommends a first step, which Jack takes. “City Hall is your graduate school,” he says. “That’s where the fieldwork is.” Which we are intended to recall, as we review the final practical decisions Jack needs to make to advance his career.

Finally, Just ends with a chapter whose idealism offers an ironic contrast to the corruption and deal-making that Jack bought into in order to achieve his final success. That Washington and national politics does work, he says, because of compromise and the art of dealing. But it too obvious an irony, underlining too strongly for me the author’s message that real politics does not preclude the ambition, selfishness, and aggression of political human beings.

Christopher Lehman-Haupt disputes that irony is suggested by this ending, saying that Jack’s words “seem more wise than ironic….He has accepted his figurative castration. He reflects the truth of recent American history.” But this final scene does not work for me because of the obviousness of the message, which is given to a visiting group of receptive, naïve high school students. While their bored teachers, who represent the standard disbelief in politics, respond with yawns.

Most of the individual scenes of this novel do work however. They cover Jack’s visit to a summer lake with his family, the dissolution of his casual affair, deal-making in Chicago restaurants, trading news with a Washington columnist, a phone conversation while looking into the Rose Garden, or making a career decision on a golf course. Author Just captures the atmosphere in each case, and, more significantly, what is not being said directly but which is nevertheless being communicated.

I am ready to read more Just novels, despite my disappointment here. He is one of the few novelist willing and able to portray the world of politics, with all its conflicts, its ironies, its moral issues, and its human ramifications. (October, 2016)

Conversation in the Cathedral, by Mario Vargas Llosa

I have read 150 pages of this 600-page novel from 1969, and I am not sure I shall continue. I have read much of Vargas Llosa, and have done so because I have enjoyed and esteemed his work. But not this one, which many call his greatest work.

My problem is that I believe that Vargas Llosa is trying here to convey history in the form of fiction. That he does not care about his characters. That they exist only to convey his portrait of corruption, cruelty, and incompetence in the Peru of the 1950s.

 But history should not be the purpose of fiction. The purpose should be to explore and reveal the hearts and souls of his characters through their personal interactions. Their primary motivation should concern the love, the hatred, the dependence, the need that prompts the actions of the characters.

Now, I recognize that mine is an old-fashioned approach to literature. When I believe that a novelist should begin with character, then with a story about the relationships among these characters, then with the social setting in which the characters act, and finally with the style that most effectively conveys those three objectives.

But Vargas Llosa has approached this work using the reverse order. What distinguishes this novel the most is the manner in which he portrays the two social movements that drive the beginning of this work. The first movement is a world of youth, of rebellious youth, at the university. Its lead character is Santiago, the confused, searching son of a wealthy man, Don Fermin. The second group is comprised of military and civilian leaders who run this Peruvian dictatorship of the 1950s.

Some might trace the stylistic manner of this novel to Joyce or Faulkner, but even that is elusive. For what Vargas Llosa has done here is interweave into a single paragraph multiple time zones and multiple conversations—with no typographic indications of that a conversation between two characters, such as the title conversation Santiago has with the chauffer throughout the book, is overlapping with a conversation among government leaders who are plotting against Santiago’s student friends.

It seems to me that Vargas Llosa may have emphasized the manner of his telling precisely because his major purpose is the political story he is telling of the two societies. That he recognizes that a history lesson is not going to work as literature, and so he turns to this unique literary technique. But technique does not work for me, nor does history, as a source of literary success.

I have now skipped ahead 50 pages to Part 2. The narrative technique has changed, moving now from complete scene to complete scene, from character to character, every two or three pages. The story is now easier to follow, since there is no jumping back and forth in time and among the characters within a single paragraph. (Or almost none.)

There are three basic stories to follow. There is Amelia with Ambrosio the chauffeur, and with the boss’s mistresses. There is Ambrosio dealing with his boss, and the bosses’ other aides. And there is the maneuvering among the top members of the government.

But there are still no characterizations to make these dozen or so characters memorable. They do not react to one another. They react only to the situation they are in. With a sense of helplessness. And so it is still difficult to follow the story, which appears to center on the impact on these characters of an intended revolution.

Part 3 introduces a new narrative strategy. Now, it advances the story by means of four episodes, each the length of a chapter. First, we follow Santiago as he is assigned by his paper to report on the murder of Hortensia, the mistress of Don Cayo, the brutal strong man behind the dictator. Then we follow a revolt against the dictator, and how Don Cayo maneuvers to put it down. Next, we return to Amelia, and through her winess Hortensia’s downfall. And finally, we follow a revolt in Arequipa, and the government’s bungling, resulting in its fall and the exile of Don Cayo.

Here, it is much easier to follow the narrative than in the previous parts, even though the chapters do not appear in chronological order. And interspersed in these chapters are moments from the future that explain or comment on the current events. This is a return to the multidimensional technique of the opening part, but here it is under control, and helps the reader’s understanding.

Part 4 becomes a blend of the previous narrative techniques. The narrative is presented in long takes, but there is a continouous change in perspective and going back and forth in time. The main characters are Santiago the reporter, Ambrosio the negro chauffeur, with whom Santiago is having a conversation (a conversation which began the novel, and continues throughout), Queta, the beautiful whore, plus the wife of Ambrosio and the soon-to-be wife of Santiago. There is no clear direction this narrative is going, especially because the events take place before the narrative in the earlier parts, such as the death of Hortensia and the aborted revolution. The emphasis is on the frustrations of both Santiago and Ambrosio in finding their role in society.

Meanwhile, it becomes more clear that Ambrosio is telling to Santiago the events in Santiago’s life. He is, of course, relating this information to the reader, but why is he telling Santiago what Santiago already knows? He is also narrating the events in his own life, which is much more understandable. This is the conversation in the cathedral, the cafe, of the novel’s title. But why? Why is this young author resorting to a technique that for me just doesn’t make sense? I have read later Vargas Llosa novels that I have enjoyed. But this one confuses me.

The novel winds down with the stories of Santiago and Ambrosio, their wives and family, their finances, and their eventual fate. But there is no connection to the political story of Peru. There is no explanation of the death of a significant character. Yes, one is implied, but neither Santiago nor the reader is certain. Life simply goes on for these characters. Which is perhaps a statement, but like the entire novel it contains no emotion, no irony, no sense of completeness. What is intended, it seems, is showing the hopelessness of these characters in determining their lives, in finding satisfaction and happiness. But this is a political statement, the one I cited at the beginning; it is not a literary achievement that is based on character.

Indeed, the finale of Part 4 focuses on the personal lives of the main characters, leaving behind the political story of Peru. Thus, many of its events here appear to have occurred before the events of the earlier Part 3. Moreover, Part 4’s focus on the personal relationships carries little of the scope, the significance of the earlier more political parts. In fact, their personal fates recall the manipulations of a soap opera.

On the other hand, the novel ends where the first chapter begins. We have come full circle. So in this sense, there need be no ending. The rest of the novel that we have read is the ending. However, it is still a letdown. It is not satisfying emotionally. At least, not until we begin to think about the entire novel. Perhaps even to reread it?

The best explanation of the novel I have read comes from Efrain Kristal: “The narrative axis of the novel is a four-hour conversation between Santiago and Ambrosio in a bar called La Catedral. Revolving around this conversation are many other conversations, stories, and situations. The encounter is accidental—Ambrosio has returned to Lima after many years of hiding from the law in the Peruvian provinces—but the conversation is pressing for both of them. Santiago wants to understand why Ambrosio loved his father, and Ambrosio wants to understand why Santiago has rejected his father. The conversation does not lead to an understanding between the two men, but when it concludes, the reader comes to terms with the world that shattered their aspirations.”

The political environment of this work is clear: the separation of the classes, the helplessness of the lower classes, the guilt of Santiago, the abuse of women, the ruthlessness of the dictatorship, etc. Rather, it is the style of telling that I cannot accommodate to, plus the inconclusiveness of the story. No, there is still the lack of emotion among the characters that I cited earlier. I do not feel them interacting with or affecting one another. There is too much coldness in the telling.

One reviewer comments that a second reading brings a much clearer understanding of the novel. Undoubtedly, this is true. One reason is that one can better grasp the sequence of events that are not told chronologically. And therefore one can better understand some characters’ actions. For example, a precise understanding of how and why Hortensia died as she did.

In the face of what seems to be overwhelming praise of this novel by the critics, I can respond only by reverting to the traditional values of literature. Character, emotion, and story. Whereas the heart of this novel is based on politics, not on character. Its characters are for me puppets being manipulated by the author. And the strings are the innovative technique that sacrifices individual cause and effect to an understanding of the political fates of these characters.

This work makes quite clear Vargas Llosa’s commitment to political and economic justice. It also makes more clear his later decision to campaign for the presidency of Peru. What troubles me is his sublimation of literary values to his political and economic message. Such a messages is valid in literature, but it should not be at the expense of the free interaction of the characters.

What also becomes clear is that my reaction to this work matches my reaction to such works as Three Trapped Tigers (Cabrera Infante), A Change of Skin (Fuentes), and The Obscene Bird of Night (Donoso). All broke the traditions of literature in search of a modern technique that searched behind surface reality.

Here is my evaluation of The Obscene Bird of Night: “This is a novel about writing, about the imagination, about the impossibility of turning the imaginary world into the real world—except in the mind of the author. So of course the people who will admire this work the most are writers themselves. And the critics who write about them. For such an approach speaks to both of them more than it does to the average reader.

“To sum up, this is a highly imaginative novel that sacrifices the warmth and humanity of its characters to the author’s exploration of his own imagination. For me, its originality is a marvelous achievement, but it is too committed to the complexity of art at the expense of conveying the complexity of life.”

The Time review concludes: “It would be a pity if the enormous but not insurmountable difficulties of reading this massive novel prevent readers from becoming acquainted with a book that reveals, as few other have, some of the ugly complexities of the real Latin America.”

My only reply is: what is the purpose of literature. Is it to create a political world, or a personal world? (March, 2014)