A community center, a co-op, a post office, a depot—in the churchless seaside village of Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s conjuring, these are the hallowed spaces where unholy thoughts arise. His latest book to be translated into English, Summer Light, and Then Comes the Night is a loosely structured novel set in rural Iceland. Its world appears cemented in a far earlier time until the reader is yanked back to the modern age by delightfully unexpected mentions of Die Hard and other pop culture references.
Ágústa, the female post officer who reads all the mail, connects this village to the broader world. Here, news travels more frequently than its subjects do. The novel’s collective narrator is a (distinctly male) chorus of unnamed villagers who report the goings-on in the village beyond Ágústa’s divulgences. This chorus adds a suitably cozy, gossipy feel to a novel so concerned with secrets.
Desire—of a carnal, spiritual and intellectual nature—is the plot’s binding agent. In one case, a man’s zeal for Latin and astronomy sends the local Knitting Company belly up, and in another, the village police officer aches for nothing but to paint moorland birds. The majority of villagers experience desire in a more traditional form, however.
It must be said that the narrator’s fascination with breasts is at times perplexing and serves no shrewd narrative goal (as the voyeuristic “we” narration of the neighborhood boys in Jeffery Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides does, by revealing the dark underpinnings of suburban male fantasies) beyond to say: These village men really like peeping decolletages. In one instance, a farmer named Krísten has a routine of jogging in a transparent top, inexplicably removing her bra partway through the exercise. (Ow!) One could read moments like this as a product of wishful thinking on the part of an unreliable “we” narrator, but one suspects they are endemic to Stefánsson’s own fictive reality.
Stefánsson’s observational writing soars when he lingers over life’s mundane wonders—a steaming cup of tea, a cloudy sky undulating over a field, lunchmeat, the silence of fish—and his abundant cottagey humor fits the landscape. A supernatural event at the depot rounds out the mysteries of this universe, where even Reykjavik is a distant thought.
The sixth novel from award-winning Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson is the story of a seaside community and its open secrets.
With candor and levity, Carolina De Robertis explores the sociopolitical transformations of Uruguay, the place she calls her root country, in The President and the Frog.
“I know what it feels like to carry one country inside your skin and a very different country outside,” says Carolina De Robertis, speaking from her backyard writing cottage in Oakland, California, as sun pours through the glass door onto the expansive bookshelf behind her. De Robertis’ family left Uruguay when her mother was pregnant with her, and the future author lived in the U.K. and Switzerland before settling in the U.S. at age 10. But fascination and longing are constantly pulling her to understand Uruguay better.
De Robertis acknowledges that for many American readers, her novels have put Uruguay on the map. “For years, it was almost as if it was an invisible country,” she says. “I’ve had people confuse it with Uganda.” In her epic Stonewall Award-winning 2019 novel, Cantoras, she explored the nature of desire amid the overwhelming oppression of late-1970s Uruguay’s totalitarian military government through the stories of five queer women. She continues her investigation into Uruguayan history in her sixth book, The President and the Frog, which centers on a fictionalized version of former Uruguayan president José “Pepe” Mujica.
“You can tap the vein of humor at the same time you tap the vein of deeply serious topics.”
Throughout his remarkable life, Pepe Mujica has been an impoverished flower farmer, a guerrilla fighter in the 1960s left-wing Tupamaro movement and a political prisoner. He was sequestered in solitary confinement for over a decade—two years of which were spent in a grate-covered hole in the ground—and he was frequently subjected to torture. After his release, he served as a moderate progressive president from 2010 to 2015. He is also a celebrated champion of gay rights, and the nation’s equal marriage law was passed during his presidency in 2013.
This last fact is significant to De Robertis on a personal level; her parents disowned her for her sexuality. “They told me I couldn’t be both Uruguayan and gay,” she says. “Coming from this experience of being cut off from my roots by being cut off from my family of origin, I wanted to shatter the idea that I couldn’t be all of these things.”
In 2012, De Robertis moved with her wife to Uruguay, where they stayed for two years. “There was this feeling of progressive renewal there,” she says. “To live through the time in which gay marriage was legalized there, before the United States—to have my marriage be seen with dignity by the law of the land—was a very profound experience.”
The President and the Frog, set shortly after the 2016 U.S. election, takes the form of an interview between a Norwegian journalist and the former Uruguayan president (whom De Robertis never outright names as Mujica in the novel). Throughout their conversation, the president reveals himself to be a garrulous old man who is game to talk about anything—except for how he stayed sane while in prison.
It is in this dark psychological space that De Robertis raises profound questions about the human spirit's capacity for hope, with help from a bit of whimsy. In chapters that flash back to those difficult days in prison, we learn that the president survives his long imprisonment by carrying on conversations with a frog that visits his wretched hole in the ground. These scenes are surreal, and the frog is a brash and often laughable companion. “You can tap the vein of humor at the same time you tap the vein of deeply serious topics,” De Robertis says. One might say that doing so is a matter of survival.
“The river that is our reading lives can always sustain us.”
Along with solidifying Uruguay’s presence in readers’ minds, The President and the Frog also decenters the United States in the context of global, political and even spiritual questions. Throughout the novel, the journalist and the president discuss and draw comparisons between events in Uruguayan history and contemporary American politics, but the U.S. is only referred to as “the North.”
“When I was writing during the Trump years, I had a different sense of the potential to connect the raw material of this book to the urgency of what was happening in the United States,” De Robertis says. “Not just the United States, but globally. When Trump was elected in 2016, my Uruguayan friends stayed up all night to see the results. U.S. elections can have a devastating effect on people’s lives in other parts of the world—and positive ones as well.”
De Robertis drew thematic and formal inspiration for The President and the Frog from Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, The Kiss of the Spider Woman, a story told in conversation between cellmates in an Argentine prison. De Robertis believes that Puig’s consideration of Latin American political revolution and queer liberation was groundbreaking. Beyond Puig, De Robertis returns to Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison for inspiration. “The river that is our reading lives can always sustain us in the river that is our writing lives,” she says.
Along with being a writer, De Robertis is also a spouse, mother, translator and full-time creative writing professor at San Francisco State University. “I am not an adherent to the notion that a real writer writes every day,” she says. “I think that notion makes assumptions about how the writer’s life is set up. I have a fancy room to write in now, but my first novel was written at a kitchen table.”
There is a tentative knock at the door of the writing cottage, and a figure appears in the frame’s crack. Sunlight blots out any defining characteristics of the visitor.
“Happy anniversary!” the glowing figure yells. “Happy anniversary!”
“It’s our 21st anniversary,” De Robertis says, her eyes shining as her wife, Pamela, retreats from the frame. “Nineteen years married.”
With candor and levity, Carolina De Robertis explores the sociopolitical transformations of Uruguay, the place she calls her root country, in The President and the Frog.
Carolina De Robertis’ conversational fifth novel is as much about storytelling as it is about José “Pepe” Mujica. The former Uruguayan leader is known as the “world’s poorest president,” as he donated nearly 90% of his presidential salary to charity. Without ever naming him outright, The President and the Frog takes Mujica’s stranger-than-fiction life story and imbues it with a quirky, mystical grace.
De Robertis’ Mujica is an old man at the tail end of his political career. After surviving well over a decade as a political prisoner and then serving as president, he now lives as a humble flower farmer “in a near-forgotten country.” On a November afternoon, he entertains the questions of a prying Norwegian journalist. He endeavors to hide the reality of his past from her, but his mind cannot help but drift back to the years he spent in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, and the reader is transported back in time with him. We discover that he survived those difficult years through the help of a talking frog.
This premise calls to mind Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, as the president uses (deep, hilarious, tangential) conversation to survive the literal and figurative darkness of incarceration. De Robertis also breaks up this darkness by describing the president’s present-day surroundings, a lush landscape that is reflective of his passion for making things grow. He is a charming man who pours endless cups of yerba mate to share with anyone who cares to take a sip, and the novel that surrounds him is similarly inviting.
La novela del dictador—“the dictator novel”—is a staple of Latin American literature that explores the political and psychological implications of authoritarian governments. Think Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) or Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat (2000). As the novel’s gaze turns toward contemporary North America, however, De Robertis goes a step further by remixing the genre. In North America rather than Latin America, a celebrity “dictator” has risen to power. This political leader is never named outright as Donald Trump, just as De Robertis’ protagonist is never dubbed Pepe Mujica—yet there is no room for doubt. Despite this grand statement, De Robertis is ultimately less concerned with critiquing political systems than with unveiling how survival might be achieved within them.
While De Robertis’ choice not to name the people and places of her novel may be viewed as stylistic bandwagoning, it allows her to remain engaged with the “once upon a time” dreaminess with which her novel kicks off. Yet it is perhaps because the novel is inspired by a real man’s life that it ultimately succeeds. The President and the Frog reminds us that hope can be found anywhere, even in the most wretched conditions. And that is a shot in the arm we all could use.
The President and the Frog reminds us that hope can be found anywhere, even in the most wretched conditions. And that is a shot in the arm we all could use.
In Anuk Arudpragasam’s elegantly discursive second novel, memory, trauma and collective action determine the arc of lives.
A Passage North begins in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where a young man named Krishan is mulling over an email from his cryptic ex-girlfriend, an activist named Anjum, whom he dated years ago in Delhi, India. Moments later, Krishan learns his grandmother’s caretaker, Rani, has mysteriously fallen down a well and died.
These two events set the wheels in motion for Krishan’s journey to the center of himself. He boards a train to northern Sri Lanka to attend Rani’s funeral, but his journey exists more in mind than body. He meditates on his brief but engulfing love affair with Anjum and is haunted by the government-sanctioned persecution of the Tamil people.
For readers unfamiliar with the Sri Lankan Civil War, A Passage North offers perspective on the Sinhalese-dominated government’s conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The insurrectionist Tamil Tigers fought to form an independent state so their ethno-linguistic minority group could escape subjugation, rape and killing. Arudpragasam raises questions about unfettered devotion to higher causes as Krishan struggles to find his own true purpose, the way Anjum seemed to find hers by forming a politically active commune away from Delhi—and away from their life together.
Arudpragasam expertly captures the ambiguity of romance between two young people who feel the call of the broader world even as they cling to each other. Krishan recalls meeting Anjum through the queer scene in Delhi, where he was enraptured by her easy confidence, her knowledge of poetry and languages, and the way she stared back at men who ogled her, forcing them to confront their own gaze. While Arudpragasam’s writing remains observational throughout, this love story adds heat and intrigue to an otherwise philosophical novel.
In A Passage North, past and present bleed together. Flipping through the novel’s pages, the reader will notice an absence of white space and section breaks outside of chapter demarcations. There is no direct dialogue either. In this way, the novel is reminiscent of José Saramago’s work. But Arudpragasam’s writing is exceptionally graceful, which allows the text to flow despite its density. The lack of action may frustrate some readers, but this structure creates an otherwise impossible narrative reverie. Ultimately, A Passage North is an elegant story whose discursive nature pays off.
Reminiscent of José Saramago’s work, Anuk Arudpragasam’s discursive second novel creates a graceful narrative reverie.
In his breakout graphic novel, New Yorker cartoonist Will McPhail charts a millennial’s ungainly journey toward emotional connection.
With generous wit and mostly black-and-white drawings, In follows Nick, an artist trapped in a cycle of hollow conversations and extra-milky lattes. As the book opens, Nick goes to a bar alone because if he were sad—which he isn’t—that is what a sad man would do. His feelings are just out of reach, as if on the tip of his tongue. Real human interactions likewise feel imminent but elusive, unlockable only with the right words.
When Nick does succeed in making a connection, these moments of emotional disorientation erupt with color. Splashes of crumbling landscapes, towering edifices and bizarrely cute flesh-eating monsters illuminate the pages like fever dreams. Here, the narrative power of images speaks for itself.
In has echoes of the 2012 black-and-white film A Coffee in Berlin and Ben Lerner’s many disaffected “lost boys of privilege.” That In is semiautobiographical lends both tenderness and a self-implicating edge to McPhail’s lampooning of the “woke millennial hipster.” The watering holes Nick frequents (albeit with scorn) have whimsical names like Gentrificchiato and Your Friends Have Kids Bar, and are “managed/haunted by a collection of Timothees Chalamet.” McPhail suggests a playful dichotomy in which you are either a person who posts up in coffee shops or are emotionally well. If you’re feeling attacked, or if you’re Timothée Chalamet, please read on.
The characters in In are absolutely delightful. The moment Nick stops berating himself for his inadequacies, the baton for that task is snatched up by his mother, sister, neighbors, 4-year-old nephew and romantic interest, Wren, who is an especially well-developed character. She is an oncologist and, like Nick, a normcore clothing devotee who enjoys drawing unmentionables in Nick’s Moleskine notebook.
When Wren becomes unexpectedly entangled in Nick’s family life, he is confronted once again with an opportunity to be in—that is, to be vulnerable. And when small talk becomes real talk, the world suddenly seems all that much brighter.
Small talk becomes real talk in Will McPhail's graphic novel, and the world suddenly seems all that much brighter.
Expanding on her short story with the same title, Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds begs the question: What makes a sacrifice selfless?
In three parts that unfold over the course of a year in the aptly named New Mexico town of Las Penas, The Five Wounds is a knife-sharp study of what happens to a family when accountability to other people goes out the window. Quade’s characters are experts at pushing love away, especially when intimate connection is most necessary.
The novel begins with a crucifixion. Amadeo Padilla is a ne’er-do-well who is hand-selected by the devout men of Las Penas to play Jesus in the annual reenactment of Christ’s Passion. To carry the cross is a great honor, and Amadeo treats this invitation as an opportunity to redeem himself in his mother’s eyes. He also sees it as a way to opt out of parenting his pregnant 16-year-old daughter, Angel, who has recently arrived on his doorstep.
While the terrain of Las Penas seems inhospitable at first glance, life pushes up through the fractured earth. As each member of the Padilla family battles their personal demons, hope shimmers like a mirage over everyday life, a sweet what-if that Quade expertly suspends above the text. What if parents put their daughters first? What if compassion were a two-way street? What if love were enough?
After Quade’s 2015 short story collection, Night at the Fiestas, it is a treat to see the author’s exceptional command of pacing on display in a novel. Proof that what you say is just as important as how you say it, her precise lines are wanting in neither substance nor style, and her darkly hilarious, tender, gorgeous use of language is one of the crowning pleasures of the novel.
In The Five Wounds, Quade expands a familiar biblical tale—a 33-year-old guy shoulders the pain of the world and gets crucified—into an irreverent 21st-century meditation on the restorative powers of empathy.
Kirstin Valdez Quade’s novel is a knife-sharp study of what happens to a family when accountability to other people goes out the window.
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