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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth getting to know, March 28, 2010
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This review is from: Lands of Memory (New Directions Paperbook) (Paperback)
Felisberto Hernández (1902-1964) was a Uruguayan writer and pianist. (As a boy, he played piano accompaniment to silent films during screenings in the theater.) As a writer, he was not prolific, but he was influential. Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, "If I hadn't read the stories of Felisberto Hernández in 1950, I wouldn't be the writer I am today." Julio Cortázar and Italo Calvino also acknowledged their admiration and indebtedness.

LANDS OF MEMORY contains two longer pieces (about sixty pages each) and four shorter ones. It seems a little forced or odd to call them "stories" (or "novellas", in the case of the two longer ones), because they are rather thin on plot. The first-person narrator in all of them is someone who is bemused and mystified by random encounters and commonplaces of life, any of which is likely to be a trapdoor to the past and a dreamlike world of memories, all slightly whimsical and gently mad, but for all of that touching and memorable. The voice of Felisberto (according to the introduction, no one refers to him by his surname) is a singular one; try as I might, I can't come up with a satisfactory comparison to another writer. The best I can do is quote Esther Allen, who in addition to her superb translation also provided the excellent introduction: "His work will bring Magritte or Joseph Cornell to mind. * * * He plays with the association of ideas but his riddles are not meant to be solved. His purpose, if he has one * * * is to immerse the reader in a shifting sequence of states of being and mysterious mental processes, repeating, amplifying, and transforming certain elusive themes that are always accompanied by the counterpoint of memory."

The best pieces are the two longer ones - "Around the Time of Clemente Colling" and "Lands of Memory" - which are placed in this volume as bookends. Even though I don't "get" them (though I rather doubt that at bottom there is anything to "get") I am quite taken by both of them, and I have made a note to myself to re-read them in another year or so. The four shorter pieces are not on the same plane, but they too contain some wonderful images and descriptions, such as this one (from "My First Concert in Montevideo"): "One of the waiters was nearsighted and moved around behind a pair of thick glasses which would advise him, very slowly, of where he might find a thing, whereupon his nose would oscillate like a compass until finally it pointed towards its objective. In one hand he carried a tray and with the other he groped his way through the crowd. * * * We contemplated him as if he were a steamer navigating among islands, running aground every so often and unloading the orders in all the wrong ports."

I am pleased to have stumbled upon the work of Felisberto Hernández (there is one at least one other work of his readily available in English translation, "Piano Stories"). I don't find him one of the great writers of the past century -- in part, I suppose, because he does not (obviously) wrestle with the "big" themes and mysteries of life -- but his work and its unusual aesthetic are worth getting to know.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good, October 13, 2008
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This review is from: Lands of Memory (Hardcover)
These stories could be compared with Street of Crocodiles, a rather famous collection of short stories; similar mood, elegaic, quiet, but with feel, like a good piano concierto. "Crocodile" is a good one- who knew selling pantyhose could make such a good tale. "Around the Time of Clemente Colling" also lingers for me. The other writer I would group these stories with is Marcel Proust; meditative, detailed, and definitely looking backward, with cerebral sentences, etcetera. If you like short stories with grace and skill (but no explosions or sex) or Latin American writers, then I recommend this.
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Lands of Memory (New Directions Paperbook)
Lands of Memory (New Directions Paperbook) by Felisberto Hernández (Paperback - July 17, 2008)
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